- Historic Sites
Verdicts Of History: Vi “take The Hatred Away, And You Have Nothing Left”
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
“And when you started to answer the question you forgot to say a few people, didn’t you?”
Darrow also asked almost every civilian witness, “Did you belong to the Water Works Improvement Association?” Thanks to some good reporting by the Detroit papers, Darrow knew that this association had been formed at a meeting in the Howe School auditorium, directly across the street from the Sweet house, on July 12. The organization’s name, derived from the nearby Water Works Park, was innocuous, and so, on the surface, was its announced purpose: to “render constructive social and civic service” in the neighborhood. Darrow inquired further. He asked one Eben Draper when he had joined the association.
“A long time ago.”
“When did you first hear the Sweets were moving into the neighborhood?”
“That was a long time ago too.”
“Did that have anything to do with your joining that club?”
“You joined that club to aid in keeping that a white district?”
“At the meeting in the school was any reference made to keep the district free from colored people?”
“How many people were present at that meeting?”
Again and again Darrow wheedled this admission out of witnesses, until the real nature of the “improvement association” was quite evident. But only by sarcasm or innuendo could he shake the general story that there had been no mob. Wasn’t it remarkable that so many people had had so much “curiosity” about the Sweet house on that particular evening?
Beneath the surface of examination and cross-examination, Darrow and Toms were fighting a subtle duel for the jury’s allegiance. Knowing Darrow’s capacity for righteous indignation and searing invective, Toms did his utmost to treat him with maximum politeness and to avoid the least sign of personal rancor. At one point, encountering his adversary outside the courtroom, Darrow exclaimed, “Goddamn it, Toms, I can’t get going. I am supposed to be mad at you, and I can’t even pretend that I am.” Darrow countered by attempting to inject humor into the case whenever possible. Once when the courtroom burst into laughter over one of his wry remarks, Toms lamented to his assistant, “We’ll never get a verdict of guilty unless we keep the case serious.”
To bolster his argument, the prosecutor compared the Sweet house to an automobile. Suppose, he said, a car with four persons in it was proceeding down a busy Detroit avenue with the curtains drawn. There was nothing unlawful about that. But “suppose that suddenly volleys are fired from four sides of the car, one shot killing a bystander; suppose that on the car being stopped four weapons are found hidden under the cushions or in the pockets of the car; suppose that when arrested none of the four men said a word about the shots except that the driver stated that there would be no more shooting. If we put the Sweet house on wheels, we have exactly the same situation.”
Hays and Darrow were on their feet instantly, arguing ferociously against the comparison. As the debate went on, Darrow played one of his shrewdest tricks. A baby began to cry in the back of the courtroom. “Who brought that child in here?” Judge Murphy asked.
With a beguiling smile, Darrow drawled, “That is the Sweet baby. We had her brought in here as an illustration. Had she been in that house that night, she might well have been arrested and tried and’the evidence here would condemn her to the same extent that it does the defendants.”
Retreating a little, Toms moved to dismiss the charge against Mrs. Sweet. Darrow and Hays had maneuvered him into a tacit admission of the weakness of the conspiracy theory. Mrs. Sweet refused to accept the dismissal, and Judge Murphy denied the motion.
Now it was the defense’s turn. Hays opened by arguing the law in the case. He cited People v. Augustus Pond , a landmark case in Michigan decided in 1860, which specified that “a man assaulted in his dwelling is not obliged to retreat, but may use such means as are absolutely necessary to repel the assailant from his house … if the assault or breaking is felonious, the homicide becomes, at common law, justifiable.…”
Then Darrow took over. His argument was deceptively simple. “Our theory is self-defense and we claim the law to be that one is justified in defending himself when he apprehends that his life is in danger and when that apprehension is based upon reason.” But the reasonable man is not a fiction, Darrow pointed out. He is a man with a background, with a color, with the color with which he has been endowed. The question is not what a white man in a city of whites would do under certain circumstances. The question is what a colored man, a reasonable colored man, with his knowledge of the prejudice against him because of his color … with his knowledge that there was a society of men (a so-called Improvement Association) formed for the purpose of ejecting him from his home; with his knowledge of what mobs do and have done to colored people when they have the power.…