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Verdicts Of History: Vi “take The Hatred Away, And You Have Nothing Left”
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
His nephew, James Smith, testified that there had been between five hundred and one thousand people on Charlevoix Avenue. Another Negro couple who happened to drive down the street around the same time estimated the crowd to be over six hundred. A white reporter from the Detroit Free Press , who had also happened upon the scene, told how he had had to elbow his way through the people on the sidewalk and the street.
The time had come for the closing arguments. As Darrow rose, the courtroom was tense. It was, he recalled later, “a pitiful and tragic picture. The whole of the space beyond the railing was packed with Negroes. With strained and anxious faces they made a powerful mute appeal to the white men who seemed to be holding in their keeping the fate of an outraged and downtrodden race.”
For the jury Darrow recapitulated the Negro’s history, trying to make his white listeners understand how prejudice felt from the black man’s point of view. He read a poem by Countee Cullen, an American Negro poet:
Once riding in old Baltimore, Heart full, head full of glee, I saw a Baltimorean Stand gating there at me. Now, I was eight and very small, And he was no whit bigger, And so I smiled, but he stuck out His tongue and called me “Nigger.” I saw the whole of Baltimore From April till December, Of all the things I saw there That’s all that I remember.
Finally, Darrow bluntly told the jurymen that he wondered if it was possible for twelve white men to give a fair trial to a Negro, no matter how hard they tried. The Sweets spent their first night in their first home afraid to go to bed. The next night they spent in jail. Now the State wants them to spend the rest of their lives in the penitentiary. The State claims there was no mob there that night. Gentlemen, the State has put on enough witnesses who said they were there, to make a mob. There are persons in the North and in the South who say a black man is inferior to the white and should be controlled by the whites. There are also those who recognize his rights and say he should enjoy them. To me this case is a cross-section of human history. It involves the future, and the hope of some of us that the future shall be better than the past.
Judge Murphy’s charge to the jury was a clear and unwavering exposition of the law in the case. He carefully explained the different types of homicide and emphasized that it was entirely within the jury’s province to “consider what were the circumstances which confronted the accused at the time; their situation, race and color, the actions and attitude of those who were outside the Sweet home.” All of these things, he said, had a bearing on “whether or not the sum total of the surrounding circumstances as they appeared to them at the time were such as to induce in a reasonable man the honest belief of danger.” He also made it clear that Dr. Sweet’s home was “his castle, whether he is white or black, and no man has the right to assail or invade it.” As for the definition of a mob, Murphy explained that according to Michigan law “if on the night-of September gfh there were gathered in the vicinity of Dr. Sweet’s home twelve or more persons with clubs or other dangerous weapons, or thirty unarmed, for the purpose of compelling Dr. Sweet to leave his home … you will find that such persons were unlawfully assembled.”
Darrow later said that Murphy’s charge to the jury “scarcely left a chance for them to do anything but acquit.” But the jury remained closeted for forty-six weary hours. The room in which they debated was close to the courtroom, and Hays recalled that occasionally when a door opened he and Darrow could hear angry exchanges such as: “What’s the use of arguing with these fellows?” “Two of you had these fellows convicted before you came here.” “I’ll stay here twenty years, if necessary, and I am younger than any of you.” A majority of the jury were inclined to acquit, but they could not convince the holdouts, reported to be four or five, and they finally informed the judge that there was no hope of agreement. Murphy discharged them.
A month later the case was put back on the court calendar for retrial. But Darrow now decided it might be better to try the defendants separately. Under the law he had a right to request this, and he singled out Henry Sweet, who had admitted firing his gun, as the best candidate. If Henry was acquitted, the weaker cases against the other defendants would collapse.