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

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During the Scopes trial, Darrow had taken advantage of his small-town-Ohio roots and had out-folksied Bryan, the farmers’ hero. The newspapers had carried dozens of pictures of the two tieless, rumpled giants, snapping their galluses at each other in the sweltering Tennessee courtroom. But an entirely different Darrow had appeared to do battle in Detroit. He was impeccably dressed and carefully groomed, and his manner was quiet and self-possessed. Beside him, looking almost diminutive in contrast to Darrow’s bulk, the New Yorker Hays was equally dapper in dress and crisp in manner.

Opposing them was District Attorney Robert F. Toms, a big, round-faced, fair-haired man with the affable personality of a successful politician. As proof of his lack of prejudice he could point to his appointment of a Negro assistant district attorney. (His critics claimed that he had also appointed two other assistants who were members of the Ku Klux Klan.) Toms’s courtroom assistant was Lester S. Moll, a tall, dark, goodlooking young lawyer with a rather aggressive manner.

Some friendly observers thought that Darrow should ask for a change of venue; to them he reiterated his longstanding belief that “a man who practices law in the criminal courts should be able to tell something about a man by looking at his face.” Darrow liked what he saw in Judge Murphy’s sensitive Irish face; he decided to take his chances with him. This meant that the selection of the jury would require extra discretion, and Darrow spent three weeks finding twelve white men (the only Negro venireman was challenged by the prosecution) who met his standards. Not only did he want the jurymen to have no prior opinion on the Sweet case; it was vital that they be equally without prejudice toward the Negro as a human being. Seated at the attorneys’ table, Darrow questioned the prospective jurors in what one reporter called “a very colloquial, not to say intimate tone.” Sometimes his questions became a casual but moving disquisition on the Negro’s bitter journey through American history. For even during the jury selection, Darrow was beginning what he felt was his primary task in the case—educating the jury to the point where they could feel compassion for the Sweets. Writing about the case later, Darrow summed up this goal in an aphorism, “No one ever judges anyone else without finding him guilty, no one ever understands another without being in sympathy with him. A person who can understand can comprehend why, and that leaves no field for condemning.”

Before the first witness appeared, Darrow and Hays moved that the prosecution provide a bill of particulars, which would compel the state to confine the witnesses’ testimony to proof of a specific allegation. Darrow knew there was no evidence of who had fired the fatal shot. Rather than let the prosecution dredge up all sorts of material and then fit it into a general theory at the end of the trial, Darrow wanted to narrow the argument. Judge Murphy sustained the motion, and the prosecution was therefore forced to state in baldly simple terms its contention that the Sweets had maliciously and premeditatedly armed themselves and their friends and had acted, on a preconceived agreement to kill the first white man who so much as threatened to damage Ossian Sweet’s newly purchased house.

To substantiate this contention, the prosecution now proceeded to parade seventy-one witnesses to the stand. Inspector Norton M. Schuknecht, who had been in charge of the police detail outside the Sweet house on September 9, insisted that the neighborhood had been quiet, and he proudly testified that he had instructed his officers that Sweet “could live there if we had to take every man in the police station to see that he did.” Schuknecht and the other police officers vowed that there were no more than one hundred to one hundred and fifty persons around the neighborhood at the time and that “there was no congregating.” Civilian witnesses made even lower estimates, the favorite figures being twenty-five to thirty.

Casually, quietly, Darrow probed these statements. He forced the police to admit that they had summoned reserves from the station house, and that traffic had been so heavy that two men had been detailed to handle it, with orders to bar further parking on the street. He obtained the additional admission that five minutes before the shooting two policemen had been rushed to the roof of an apartment house across the street. With the civilian witnesses Darrow took another tack. Slouched in his chair, he would lift his head from the crossword puzzles on which he worked while the prosecutor examined the witness. “What brought you to that corner?” he would drawl. Most witnesses answered, “Curiosity.”

“About what?”

“Nothing in particular.”

“You knew that colored people had moved into that house?”

“Yes.”

“Did that have anything to do with your curiosity?”

“Maybe.”

“Many people there?”

“No.”

“There were strangers there—people you didn’t ordinarily see in the neighborhood?”

“Some.”

“How many?”

“Twenty-five or thirty.”

Most witnesses grimly clung to this stubborn pattern of evasion. But Darrow’s relaxed, low-keyed manner got a few to lower their guard. One youngster said, “There was a great crowd—no, I won’t say a great crowd, a large crowd—well, there were a few people there and the officers were keeping them moving.”

Darrow sprang to his feet. “Have you talked to anyone about the case?”

“Lieutenant Johnson [a police detective].”