December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
“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. …”
But a committee from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had called on Darrow in New York, where he was visiting his friend and fellow attorney Arthur Garfield Hays, chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union; the committee convinced Darrow that the Sweet case was as important to Negro freedom as Scopes’s had been to academic freedom. The N.A.A.C.P. had been fighting hard on the legal front for more than a decade against white attempts to contain Negroes in ghettos. In 1917 the United States Supreme Court had ruled that municipal ordinances enforcing segregation were unconstitutional, and now the N.A.A.C.P. was deeply involved in contesting the legality of property holders’ convenants prohibiting the sale of homes to Negroes. To the N.A.A.C.P. the Sweet case represented another and more dangerous segregationist technique—mob violence.
Behind this N.A.A.C.P. move to engage Darrow was a bitter argument between Walter White, the organization’s assistant secretary, who had rushed to Detroit to investigate the case, and the Negro lawyers already retained. In his report White passed harsh judgments on two of the three, calling Julian Perry “a man of no personality” and Cecil Rowlette “a blustering, noisy, pompous individual with a very inflated opinion of his own ability.” Rowlette had angrily protested the idea of hiring outsiders, arguing that a white lawyer would hurt rather than help. Finally he threatened to walk out if a white lawyer was hired. Walter White calmly pointed out that a prominent white lawyer was the Sweets’s only hope of gaining “the best white sentiment” of Detroit, which was at present totally alienated because most people felt the killing was unwarranted. In a letter written the following day, September 17, White added an even more ominous note: “There is sentiment even among colored people that the firing began too soon. If they had waited fifteen or twenty minutes until the attack on the house had reached its full fury there would have been little to the case. But we’ve got to see it through. …”
There was ample reason for Arthur Garfield Hays to bring the Civil Liberties Union into the case as well, and on October 12, he and Darrow arrived in Detroit to interview their new clients. By this time the case was on the docket at Recorder’s Court. The presiding judge was Frank Murphy—future governor of Michigan and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court—a handsome, thirty-five-year-old Irish-American who had been elected two years earlier on a nonpartisan ticket by one of the largest majorities ever cast for a judge in Detroit. Murphy had assigned the case to himself because, he told a friend, “everyjudge on this bench is afraid to touch [it.] They think it’s dynamite. They don’t realize that this is the opportunity of a lifetime to demonstrate sincere liberalism and judicial integrity at a time when liberalism is coming into its own.” Murphy’s first act when the case reached his jurisdiction was to release Gladys Sweet on bail. Even this gesture, Hays said, “aroused the fury of the community.”
Hays remembered the first meeting with their clients: We were ushered into a small room, dimly lighted by a dirty window, furnished with a table and a few broken chairs. Our clients were summoned. They seemed cheered by our visit but not hopeful. They had spent sixty summer days in a dingy city jail; and Negroes in Detroit involved in a killing have reason to be pessimistic. On the face of it our case was not strong. It seemed clear that Breiner had been shot by the fusillade from that house.
To make matters worse, the attitude of the eleven defendants was not very helpful, from a lawyer’s point of view. They had what Hays called “a very human desire” to support the “original and inept stories” they had given the police when they were first arrested. One man stubbornly maintained that he had been taking a bath when the shots were fired. Another was frankly proud of the whole episode: It had taught the whites a lesson, hadn’t it? Most difficult of all was getting anyone to admit that those inside the house had been frightened. “They had become heroes in the eyes of their race,” Hays said. “Not all of them cared to admit they had been scared.” It took a great deal of argument to convince them that their defense depended almost entirely upon their state of mind at the time of the shooting.
Judge Murphy had granted Darrow two extra weeks to prepare his defense. The lawyer undoubtedly read closely the hundred pages of testimony taken during the pretrial examinations conducted in mid-September under Murphy’s supervision. Under angry cross-examination from the three Negro attorneys, police and civilian witnesses had stubbornly insisted that Charlevoix Avenue had been quiet on the night of September 9, and that there had been no provocation whatsoever for the Sweets suddenly to blaze away with guns. Finding witnesses to rebut this proved almost impossible.
The trial began on October 30. The courtroom was divided into two unequal parts, with space in the smaller half for two to three hundred spectators. The larger half was the well of the court, with the judge’s bench and witness box against the marble wainscoted rear wall. On the left was the prisoners’ bench, where the eleven Negroes sat awaiting judgment. Ossian Sweet, the leader of the group, was a handsome, dark-skinned man with a small black mustache. His slender, twenty-four-year-old wife was so light in color that she had grown up in an all-white neighborhood in Detroit without experiencing an iota of prejudice. She wore her thick dark hair parted in the middle and coiled loosely at the back of her neck.
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.”
“Nothing in particular.”
“You knew that colored people had moved into that house?”
“Did that have anything to do with your curiosity?”
“Many people there?”
“There were strangers there—people you didn’t ordinarily see in the neighborhood?”
“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].”
“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.…
To show why and how Ossian Sweet thought as a colored man, Darrow told the jury the story of his client’s unusual life and brilliant career. The son of a Florida minister and the grandson of an Alabama slave, Sweet left home at fourteen to work his way through Wilberforce Academy in Ohio and Howard University Medical School in Washington. After practicing medicine for several years in Detroit and marrying Gladys Mitchell, he went abroad to study gynecology and pediatrics in Vienna and in Paris, where he worked at the Curie Institute under Madame Curie herself. Returning to Detroit, Dr. and Mrs. Sweet, now the parents of a little girl, began looking for a home. They selected the house on the corner of Garland and Charlevoix, which was owned by a white woman named Smith who was married to a very light-skinned Negro.
Now, Darrow reminded the jury, during the summer before Dr. Sweet moved into his house Detroit had been rocked by a series of racial incidents. Another highly respected Negro doctor who bought a house in a nearby white district had been driven into the streets by a rampaging mob. At least six similar incidents had occurred within a few weeks, forcing the mayor to issue a proclamation begging the public to avoid “a lasting stain on the reputation of Detroit as a law-abiding community.” At the same time, the city’s Negroes were seething over the fact that in the previous twenty-two months fifty-five black men had been killed by the police.
With this for background, Darrow put Ossian Sweet on the stand in his own defense and asked him to describe what had happened on the fateful night.
“When did you first observe anything outside?”
“We were playing cards. It was about eight o’clock when something hit the roof of the house.”
“What happened after that?”
“Somebody went to the window and I heard them remark, ‘People, the people.’”
“I ran out to the kitchen where my wife was. There were several lights burning. I turned them out and opened the door. I heard someone yell, ‘Go and raise hell in front; I am going back.’ Frightened, and after getting a gun, I ran upstairs, stones were hitting the house intermittently. I threw myself on the bed and lay there a short while—perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, when a stone came through a window. Part of the glass hit me.”
“What happened next?” Darrow asked.
“Pandemonium—I guess that’s the best way to describe it—broke loose. Everyone was running from room to room. There was a general uproar. Somebody yelled, ‘There’s someone coming.’ They said, ‘That’s your brother.’ A car pulled up to the curb. My brother and Mr. Davis got out. The mob yelled, ‘Here’s niggers, get them! Get them!’ As they rushed in, a mob surged forward, fifteen or twenty feet. It looked like a human sea. Stones kept coming faster. I was downstairs. Another window was smashed. Then one shot, then eight or ten from upstairs. Then it was all over.”
Slowly, quietly, with deep sympathy in his resonant voice, Darrow now asked the crucial question of the trial. “What was your state of mind at the time of the shooting?”
“When I opened the door and saw the mob,” Sweet replied, “I realized I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history. In my mind I was pretty confident of what I was up against. I had my back against the wall. I was filled with a peculiar fear, the fear of one who knows the history of my race. I knew what mobs had done to my people before.”
Darrow asked Sweet if he could tell the jury what he meant by that last sentence, and the doctor proceeded to recite the grisly tale of recent Ku Klux Klan-inspired race riots in both the North and the South. In East St. Eouis, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Negroes had been shot and beaten by white mobs. In Arkansas, four brothers named Johnson—one a physician like Ossian, another a dentist like Otis—had been dragged from a train and murdered. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Dr. A. C. Jackson, called by the Mayo brothers the foremost Negro surgeon in the country, had accepted a police guarantee of protection when a mob attacked his home. He had surrendered his weapons; five minutes later he was dead. In Texas, Henry Lowrie surrendered himself under a similar promise of safe conduct. The police let a mob drag him from a train and burn him at the stake. It was these victims and many others—Dr. Sweet declared that almost 3,000 Negroes had been lynched in the last generation—that Sweet had been thinking about on the night of September 9 in his house on Charlevoix Avenue.
The prosecuting attorneys strenuously objected to this testimony. But Judge Murphy declared it admissible. Now Darrow brought Negro and white witnesses to the stand to counter the prosecution’s argument that Charlevoix Avenue had been peaceful and relatively deserted. Three Negroes named Smith told of driving near the corner at about eight o’clock that evening. Their car had been bombarded by stones, and they had been told to get out of sight before they were lynched. The prosecution questioned them intensely on why they were driving in the neighborhood. One of the Smiths, an elderly man, became visibly annoyed. “I was goin’ to dinner,” he said, “and when I wants to eat anywhere I goes by any street I pleases.” Smith told how the crowd began stoning his car, shouting, “There’s niggers now!” “Get ’em!” “They’re going to the Sweets.”
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:
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.
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?”
Deftly Darrow summed up Henry’s motives for going to the house of his brother. “[Ossian] had helped Henry through school. He loved him. He had taken him into his home. Henry had lived with him and his wife; he had fondled his baby. … Should this boy have gone along and helped his brother? Or should he have stayed away? What would you have done?”
Darrow paused; he could have ended here. But as one reporter wrote, “Some deep instinct warned him that he had not yet said quite all,” and he returned again to what he believed was the heart of the case: … the life of the Negro race has been a life of tragedy, of injustice, of oppression. The law has made him equal, but man has not. And, after all, the last analysis is, What has man done?—and not, What has the law done? I know there is a long road ahead of him, before he can take the place which I believe he should take. I know that before him there is suffering, sorrow, tribulation and death among the blacks and perhaps the whites. I am sorry. I would do what I could to avert it. I would advise patience; I would advise toleration; I would advise understanding; I would advise all of those things which are necessary for men who live together.
Gentlemen, what do you think is your duty in this case? I have watched day after day these black tense faces that have crowded this court. These black faces that now are looking to you twelve whites, feeling that the hopes and fears of a race are in your keeping.
This case is about to end, gentlemen. To them it is life. Not one of their color sits on this jury. Their fate is in the hands of twelve whites. Their eyes are fixed on you, their hearts go out to you, and their hopes hang on your verdict.
This is all. I ask you, on behalf of this defendant, on behalf of these helpless ones who turn to you, and more than that, —on behalf of this great state, and this great city which must face this problem, and face it fairly—I ask you in the name of progress and of the human race, to return a verdict of Not Guilty in this case!
A friend who met Judge Murphy inside the door of his chambers immediately after Darrow finished speaking said, “I had never seen [Murphy] so moved. He took my hand and said, ‘This is the greatest experience of my life. That was Clarence Darrow at his best. I will never hear anything like it again. He is the most Christlike man I have ever known.’”
The jury deliberated only three hours. As they filed in to give the verdict, another eyewitness described Darrow “seated with his hands grasping the arms of the chair, his great body stooped over, his head leaning forward.” When the foreman of the jury, in response to the Judge’s question, said, “Not guilty,” Darrow sank down in his chair, and Toms, afraid that his opponent was about to faint, stepped to his side. Darrow gave him a weary smile. “I’m all right,” he murmured to the District Attorney. “I’ve heard that verdict before.”
The state dropped the charges against the other defendants, and Dr. Ossian Sweet eventually moved into his house and lived there for a number of years. But the rest of his life was marked by a series of personal tragedies. His daughter died in childhood, and his wife succumbed to tuberculosis after a long struggle. On March 19, 1960, after years of ill health, Ossian Sweet was found dead, a bullet through his head and a revolver in his hand. Henry Sweet became a lawyer and practiced in Detroit until his death in 1940. Of the other principals, only Otis Sweet, the dentist, is still alive. Interviewed by Detroit news reporters on the fortieth anniversary of the case, Otis recalled his arrival by taxicab that evening. “The street was a sea of humanity,” he said. “The crowd was so thick you couldn’t see the street or the sidewalk. Just getting to the front door was like running the gantlet. I was hit by a rock before I got inside.”
The Sweet house still stands on the corner of Garland and Charlevoix. The neighborhood is still composed of middle-class families in similar houses on small, city-size plots. But now it is predominantly Negro. It was untouched by the rioting that burned down dozens of square blocks of Detroit in the summer of 1967. But Dr. Otis Sweet’s dental office on the second floor of 9300 Mack Avenue on the east side was destroyed when looters sacked and burned the shoe store on the street level.
In his final comment on the case, Clarence Darrow, in a more philosophic mood, wrote that he felt the white people who tried to drive the Sweets out of their home were not really responsible for their actions. They were only “a product of the bitterness bred through race prejudice.” To this he added a last sentence that rings with harsh reality for both white and black citizens in Detroit and the nation today. “As long as this feeling lives, tragedies will result.”