Verdicts Of History: Vi “take The Hatred Away, And You Have Nothing Left”

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“The Recorder’s Court of the City of Detroit. In the name of the people of the State of Michigan, Robert M. Toms, prosecuting attorney in and for the said County of Wayne who prosecutes for and on behalf of the people of said state in said court comes now here in said court m the September term therefor, A.D. 1925, and gives the said court to understand and be informed that Ossian Sweet, Gladis Sweet, Joe Mack, Henry W. Sweet, Morris Murray, Otis O. Sweet, Charles B. Washington, Leonard C. Morns, William E. Davis, John Lotting and Hewitt Watson, late of said City of Detroit, m said county, heretofore, to-wit on the gth day of September, A.D. 1925, at the said City of Detroit in the county aforesaid, feloniously, willfully and of their malice aforethought, did kill and murder one Leon E. Breiner; contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the people of the State of Michigan.”

Behind the matter-of-fact language of this complaint lay a city seething with racial unrest. Ossian Sweet, his wife Gladys (whose name the court clerk apparently had trouble spelling), his two brothers, Otis and Henry, and their friends also mentioned in the complaint were Negroes. The dead man, Leon Breiner, was white. He was, it appeared, the innocent victim of a racial pitched battle.

The Sweets had moved into their newly purchased house on the corner of Garland Street and Charlevoix Avenue on Tuesday, September 8, and had been shaken by several telephoned threats of violence. The next evening, they left their two-year-old daughter with relatives and sought help from Ossian’s brothers and seven friends who agreed to come home with them. All the men were armed and determined to defend the Sweets and their right to live in the house they had bought. When a crowd gathered along Charlevoix Avenue that evening, the police guarding the house made no attempt to stop unruly members of the throng from bombarding it with rocks and stones. At dusk, Otis Sweet and a friend arrived in a taxi, and barely made it from the curb into the house, pursued by an angry group cursing and flinging rocks. Minutes later, shots rang out from several windows of the darkened house, and the crowd scattered. The police quickly arrested the Negroes in the house. Only later did the authorities learn that Breiner, smoking his pipe on a friend’s porch across the street, had been shot through the back and died not long after he was rushed to a hospital. The Sweets and their friends were charged with murder.

No one in Detroit, white or black, would have given the Negroes much of a chance for acquittal. When arrested they had told evasive, often contradictory stories. The Detroit policemen who had been guarding the house insisted that there had been no overt act of violence, no mob assault to justify the gunfire. Moreover, the three Negro defense lawyers hired by Mrs. Sweet’s mother were treated with studied contempt by the Detroit police, who simply refused to let them see their clients. The attorneys secured a writ of habeas corpus, ordering the police to produce the defendants in court on Friday morning, thirty-six hours after their arrest, but when the time came only an assistant prosecutor showed up; he told the judge that local feeling was so intense he dared not risk bringing the accused outside the walls of the city jail. Not until four o’clock that afternoon did the Sweets and their friends get any legal advice. The following morning they were arraigned and formally charged with murder.

Thus far the case had received no national publicity and hence had aroused little interest outside of Detroit. But this changed immediately when the eleven defendants received the rather startling news that Clarence Darrow was going to defend them in court.

At first glance, it was hard to see why the Sweet case attracted “the attorney for the damned,” as Darrow was sometimes called. Thwarting and denouncing the death penalty had long been Darrow’s forte, but this clause of Michigan’s penal code had been abolished. Also, at sixty-eight, Darrow had supposedly retired from criminal law. But a closer look at Darrow’s career made his defense of the Sweets readily understandable. After nine years as a small-town lawyer in his native Ohio, he had moved to Chicago in 1888 and soon won fame as a defender of labor before hostile judges and jurors. Tall, rangy, and intense, Darrow built his sympathy for the underdog on a somewhat sketchy philosophy of scientific determinism combined with a profound passion for social justice. He proved equally brilliant at persuading juries to pity and sometimes to acquit accused murderers. His climactic triumph in this field was his 1924 defense of the young Chicago “thrill killers,” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, whom he saved from the electric chair. By this time Darrow was selecting his cases for their precedent-setting potentialities. The defense of Leopold and Loeb had been a blow against the death penalty; and he had just spent the summer of 1925 battling William Jennings Bryan and the fundamentalists of Tennessee over the right of a young teacher named Scopes to teach the theory of evolution in the public schools. “I had determined not to get into any more cases that required hard work and brought me into conflict with the crowd,” Darrow later wrote. “I had fought for the minority long enough. I wanted to rest. …”