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Verdicts of History: VI “Take The Hatred Away, and You Have Nothing Left”
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
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.
The second trial, begun in April, 1926, followed a pattern similar to the first. Darrow spent a week selecting the jury, working his way through some 165 talesmen. The same number of witnesses paraded to the stand for the prosecution and stubbornly told the same story. Darrow was able to dig a little deeper into their testimony. He got one man to admit that at the July 12 meeting of the Water Works Park Improvement Association a representative of the nearby Tireman Avenue Improvement Association had risen and recommended driving out the Sweets with violence, and he had received a rousing round of applause. Very much perturbed, District Attorney Toms rose to ask if the Tireman Avenue delegate had advocated violence. After a pause, the witness answered, lamely, “Yes.”
Darrow also managed to produce an additional white witness, a Mrs. Hinteys, who lived on the block and said she had seen at least five hundred people swarming there on the murder night. Dr. Ossian Sweet gave his version of the fatal uproar, and Henry Sweet, too, took the stand in his own defense. He “made an excellent appearance in the witness chair,” Darrow said later. “He was frank and open-mannered and made no attempt to conceal his part in the tragedy.”
The mood of this second trial was harsher and angrier than the first. The prosecution made a serious attempt to make a martyr out of the late Leon Breiner. They pictured him as a peaceful, law-abiding citizen, minding his own business on his neighbor’s lawn. Assistant prosecutor Moll in his summation said that Henry Sweet was a coward who had shot Breiner in the back as he leaned forward to light his pipe. Moll also stated that race had nothing to do with the case. It was a murder case, not a race case, he insisted.
When Darrow rose to make his final summation, he was angry. This time he read no poems, and he made very little effort to create sympathy for Henry Sweet. When he talked about race, he did it in hard, gutty terms, bluntly telling the jury, “I say you are prejudiced,” and insisting “there isn’t a man in Detroit who doesn’t know that the defendant did his duty, and that this case is an attempt to send him and his companions to prison because they defended their constitutional rights. … Now that is this case, gentlemen, and that is all there is to this case. Take the hatred away, and you have nothing left.”
Then Darrow tore into the late Leon Breiner. “Mr. Moll says that this is a case between Breiner and Henry Sweet.”
“No, I did not say such a thing,” Moll snapped.
“Well, let me correct it. He says that he holds a brief for Breiner. That is right; isn’t it?”
“That is right.”
“… If he holds a brief for Breiner he should throw it in the stove. It has no place in a court of justice.… It isn’t easy to talk about the dead, unless you ‘slobber’ over them and I am not going to ‘slobber’ over Breiner. … Who was he? He was a conspirator in as foul a conspiracy as was ever hatched in a community; in a conspiracy to drive from their homes a little family of black people. Not only that, but to destroy these blacks and their home.… Why was he there? He was there just the same as the Roman populace were wont to gather at the Colosseum where they brought out the slaves and the gladiators and waited for the lions to be unloosed.… He was there waiting to see these black men driven from their homes, and you know it; peacefully smoking his pipe, and as innocent a man as ever scuttled a ship.”
He went on to skewer the police. Of one policeman who claimed only four people had been in the school yard, he snarled, “I wouldn’t say this man lied. It takes some mentality to lie. An idiot can’t lie.”
The residents of Charlevoix Avenue received equally rough handling. Most of them were of immigrant stock, with far less education than the Sweets. They regularly mispronounced nearby Goethe Street. Darrow selected one, a schoolteacher named Miss Stowell; “fifteen years a high school teacher and in common with all the other people in the community she called it Gother Street,” he sneered. ”… If they had one colored family up there, some of the neighbors might learn how to pronounce Goethe.”
He castigated the Water Works Park Improvement Association, and scorched both its members and the police for their conduct on July 12. The police had admitted that two plainclothesmen had been at the meeting. “They heard a man make a speech that would have sent any colored man or political crusader to jail. Advocating violence! Why wasn’t he arrested? A man haranguing a crowd to violence and crime in the presence of officers! And the crowd applauded this mad and criminal speech.”
Darrow talked for almost eight hours, mostly in the same tough, no-nonsense vein. Only at the close did he return to a plea for sympathy and understanding. “Let me say just a parting word for Henry Sweet, who has well nigh been forgotten. I am serious, but it seems almost like a reflection upon this jury to talk as if I doubted your verdict. What has this boy done?”