The Trial of The People of Michigan v. Ossian Sweet et al.
The Trial of The People of Michigan vs. Henry Sweet
Lt. Paul Schellenberger
(Introductions by Professor Bruce W. Frier of the Michigan Law School. Editing by Prof. Frier and Patrick Hogan.)
Lester Moll (Assistant Prosecutor)
Thomas Chawke (Defense Co-Counsel)
Robert Toms (Chief Prosecutor)
Charge to Jury
Judge Frank Murphy
The Trial of The People of Michigan v. Ossian Sweet et al.
The defense in this case faces and admits facts which are sometimes subject to equivocation and avoidance. We are not ashamed of our clients and we shall not apologize for them. We are American citizens; you men of the jury are American citizens; they are American citizens. Each juryman said that he conceded equal rights to all Americans. On the basis of the legal rights of the defendants we make our defense. We say this with the full realization of the sacredness of human life and having quite as much sympathy for the bereaved family of the deceased as has the prosecution.
We shall first state our theory of the law and then state the facts we intend to prove. The right of self-defense in Anglo-Saxon history is centuries old and is well expressed in the old phraseology of Lord Chatham:
"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown; it may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter., the ram may enter; but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of that ruined tenement."
And did we not have this right of self-defense, were the use of arms never justified, we should all be subject to the terrible passions of man who would have no reason to fear mans retaliation. Self-defense is a necessary feature of organized society. It is the dearest right of a free man. Anything less than the right to use the fullest measure of protection when home and life are threatened would be contrary to human nature. No civilized society could survive without the right of self-defense. But, however valuable that right may be to a powerful man in the high classes of society, it is essential to the humble citizen and particularly to one who is subject to prejudice because be differs in race, creed or color from the ruling class in any community, I have said this in order to make clear that our defense is based upon a sacred ancient right, that of protection of home and life.
But the right of self-defense cannot be an excuse for wantonly taking human life. To shoot to protect oneself is a right arising from the necessities of a particular situation as the facts appear to the person involved. You, gentlemen of the jury, have had told you a part of the story of September 9th, as it appeared from the outside, and it will be our duty and pleasure to show you the facts as they appeared from inside that little house on Garland Street and Charlevoix Avenue-the facts as they appeared to eleven people of the black race who had behind them a history, who were affected by knowledge of the appalling and almost uncivilized treatment of their race by those who should be their brothers and protectors. In other words, we shall show not only what happened in the house, but we shall attempt a far more difficult task-that of reproducing in the cool atmosphere of a courtroom, a state of mind-the state of mind of these defendants, worried, distrustful, tortured and apparently trapped-a state of mind induced by what has happened to others of their race, not only in the South where their ancestors were once slaves, but even in the North in the States which once fought for their freedom.
We conceive the law to be this-that a man is not justified in shooting merely because he is fearful-but that a man is justified if he has reasonable ground for fear. In other words, one must put himself in a position of a reasonable man. But the reasonable man is not a fiction. 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 people had threatened to bomb his home and kill him if he moved into the neighborhood; with his knowledge that there was a society of men (also-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; with his knowledge of history, his knowledge of psychology; with his apprehension and fear from the facts as they appear to him.
Perhaps a good illustration of our theory of the law would be to consider the situation of a white man in a colored community, say Hayti. Assume that a white man, through the course of years, has succeeded in acquiring an education and accumulated a little capital; that he has moved into a nice residential district; that he sees outside his home what appears to him a mob of colored people; that his life has been threatened; that this white man had knowledge of other ferocious and unjustified attacks and knew the results of mob violence. Under those circumstances a white man charged with murder before a jury of colored men would be entitled to show how the situation appeared to him, whether such appearance arose from immediate facts, or from his knowledge of other incidents, his knowledge of psychology, his knowledge of history.
In other words, 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.
Doctor Ossian H. Sweet-Doctor, stand up so the jury can look you over-was born in Orlando, Florida, in October, 1895. His father was a minister and farmer. His grandfather was a slave. There were six children, of whom three are before you now. Defendant Doctor Otis Sweet, a dentist highly respected among his people in the City of Detroit, and Henry Sweet, who is now a college student. Henry and Otis, stand up. The other member of the Sweet family before you today is Mrs. Sweet, whose name was Mitchell before her marriage. Mrs. Sweet, stand up.
These are four of the defendants and the first fact in our case of which we shall expect you gentlemen to take notice is that they do not look like murderers.
The story of Dr. Sweet's life gives one pride in America, just as the story of this case makes one ashamed for America. Pride comes from watching this man, born on a farm of humble people, gradually rising through life to become, after years of work, study and earnest application, a member of an honored profession. As a boy, Dr. Sweet learned from his grandfather the cruel stories of slavery in Alabama....
And let us go unto our God.
And when we stand before Him
I shall say-
‘Lord, I do not hate,
I am hated.
I scourge no one,
I am scourged.
I covet no lands,
My lands are coveted.
I mock no people,
My people are mocked.'
And, brother, what shall you say?"
[Joseph S. Cotter, Jr., African-American poet]
Testimony of Eben Draper
Prosecution witness Eben Draper, a member of the Waterworks Improvement Association, was outside the Sweet home at the time of the shooting. He was cross-examined by Clarence Darrow.
Q: When was the club started?
A: A long time ago.
Q: When did you first hear that a colored family was moving into the neighborhood?
A: That was a long time ago, too.
Q: Did that have anything to do with your joining the club?
Q: Did it?
Q: You joined the club to aid in keeping that a white district?
Q: At the meeting in the school was any reference made to keeping the district free from colored people?
Q: How many people were present at that meeting?
A: Seven hundred.
Testimony of Alfred Andrews
Alfred Andrews was cross-examined by Darrow concerning a pep talk delivered at the Waterworks Improvement Association meeting by a man from the Tireman Improvement Association, the group believed to be responsible for driving a black man named Dr. Turner from his home on Spokane Avenue.
Q: Did he tell you about the riot trouble they had in his neighborhood?
A: Yes, he told us about a Negro named Dr. Turner who had bought a house on Spokane Avenue.
Q: Did he say his organization made Turner leave?
A: Yes. He said his organization wouldn't have Negroes in their neighborhood and they would cooperate with us in keeping them out of ours.
Q: Did the crowd applaud him?
Q: Did you applaud?
Q: You feel that way now?
A: Yes, I haven't changed.
Q: You know a colored person has certain rights?
A: Yes, I was in favor of keeping the Sweets out by legal means.
Q: Did the speaker talk of legal means?
A: No, he was a radical. I myself do not believe in violence.
Q: Did anybody in the audience of five hundred or more people protest against the speaker's advocacy of violence?
A: I don't know.
[Dove testified that there were more women and children than men outside the Sweet home on the night of the shooting.]
Q: Did you make any estimate of the number of women and children in a crowd before?
A: No, I can't say that I have.
Q: As long as the question was asked by the State, you thought you were safe in answering it the way that you did?
A: No, not exactly.
Q: Was there a crowd?
Q: Was there any disturbance?
Q: Do you belong to any organization or club?
Q: Have you any reason for not answering that question?...
Q: When did you hear that Dr. Sweet had bought the place?
A: Quite a while before he moved in I heard rumors from the neighbors.
Q: Quite a discussion?
A: Yes, I guess so.
Q: How long before you moved in?
A: Six weeks or two months.
Q: You heard it from all the neighbors?
A: Yes, two, three, or four of them.
Q: You discussed it with your wife?
Q: You didn't want him there?
A: I am not prejudiced against them, but I don't believe in mixing whites and blacks.
Q: So you didn't want him there?
A: No, I guess not....
[Inspector Schuknecht was in charge of the police who were guarding Dr. Sweet's home. He testified that with him on the night of the shooting were eight patrolmen, a sergeant and a lieutenant.]
Q: There was no one there when you got there? The time of your arrival is about 7:30?
A: There were people on the street, but they were walking up and down and there was no congregating....
[Schuknecht testified, "I told them [my officers] Dr. sweet could live there if we had to take every man in the police station to see that he did."]
Q: Did you see anyone armed with clubs or other weapons?
A: Not any time.
Q: What happened at 8:15?
A: Suddenly a volley of shots was fired from the windows of Dr. Sweet's home.
Q: What could you see?
A: I saw flashes of guns.
Q: How many shots?
A: About fifteen or twenty.
Q: What did you do when you got home on the evening of September 9th?
A: First thing I remember is my wife telling me about a phone conversation she had with Mrs. Butler, in which the latter told her of overhearing a conversation between the motorman of a street car and a woman passenger, to the effect that Negro family had moved into the neighborhood and they would be out before the next night.
Q: When did you first observe anything outside?
A: We were playing cards; it was about eight o'clock when something hit the roof of the house.
Q: What happened after that?
A: Somebody went to the window and then I heard the remark, "The people, the people."
Q: And then?
A: 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'm going back. I was frightened, and after getting a gun, ran upstairs. Stones kept hitting our house intermittently. I threw myself on the bed and lay there a short while. Perhaps fifteen minutes, when a stone came through the window. Part of the glass hit me."
Q: What happened then?
A: Pandemonium--I guess that's the best way of describing 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 had 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, the mob surged forward fifteen or twenty feet. It looked like a human sea. Stones kept coming faster. I ran downstairs. Another window was smashed. Then one shot. Then eight or ten from upstairs; then it was all over....
Q: State your mind at the time of the shooting.
A: When I opened the door and saw the mob, I realized I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people
throughout its entire history. In my mind, I was pretty confident of what I was up against, with my back against the wall. I was filled with a peculiar fear, the kind no one could feel unless they had no the history of our race. I knew what mobs had done to my people before.
Toms [objecting]: Is everything this man saw as a child justification for a crime 25 years later?
Sweet was cross-examined by Robert Toms.
[Toms asked Sweet why his testimony differed in several particulars from what he told police on the day of his arrest:]
A: I am under oath now. I was very excited then and afraid that what I said might be misinterpreted...
Q: You admit, of course, that Leon Breiner was killed by a bullet fired from your home?
A: No, I don't.
"I have learned more about the race problem in this case than I ever knew. And I don't think there's a panacea for it. It may be solved by mutual forebearance. But it isn't your business to settle it. Let's not try to change the whole phase of this case into a psychological one...."
"Remember this courtroom is just a tiny speck in the world. Perhaps there are other worlds that we should consider...."
"Neither [Hay's] keen mind nor [Darrow's] sympathetic appeal worry me. No lawyer is better than his case. No lawyer can change the truth. The truth is eternal...."
"I never dreamed Mr. Darrow would have the nerve to come into this court and say every witness was a liar and a scoundrel...."
"The trouble with this case is this: Darrow doesn't want to look at it as a criminal case, but as a cross section of human nature. But that's not what we're here for...."
"What an insignificant figure Breiner has been in this argument, and yet we started out to find out who killed him....Breiner was killed because he was indiscreet enough to stop in front of a house where some Negroes wanted to live...."
"There is no scintilla of evidence to show that the Association banded together to drive Negroes out of the neighborhood...."
"I concede the right of under the law of any man, black or white, to live where he likes or wherever he can afford to live. But we all have many civil rights which we voluntarily waive in the name of public peace, comfort, and security, and because we are ahamed to insist upon them. I have a right to be a domineering, arrogant martinet to my subordinates; I have a right to remain seated in a street car while an elderly woman or a mother carrying a child stands; I have a right to keep my hat on in the church or in the theater; I have a right to play the peiano or honk my automobile horn when a woman next door is tossing on a sick bed--all these things and many more are civil right which I may insist upon. But I would be ashamed to insist upon them, and so would you."
"But there is one civil right more precious than all the others, which no man surrenders, except at the command of God or his country, and that is the right to live. When John Hancock and fifty-four others of our forefathers fixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, they subscribed, as one of the eternal principles on which this country was founded, to this doctrine: 'All men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' And I have no doubt that in setting forth those inalienable rights our forefathers purposely put the most important of those rights first--the right to live. And right here let us ask ourselves, what has Leon Breiner done to have been deprived of that right?"
"Has he committed some outrage that his right to live should have been taken away from him, without his having the least chance to defend it? Did Breiner arm himself to protect his civil rights--his right to live? Which is more important--the right to live where you please, in a certain house on a certain street, or the right to live at all? Certainly the latter. Certainly Breiner, had he been given a chance to speak, would have said, 'I'll live anywhere, but let me live...'"
"Back of all your sophistry and transparent political philosophy, gentlemen of the defense, back of all your prating of civil rights, back of your psychology and your theory of race hatred, lies the stark body of Leon Breiner with a bullet hole in his back. Bury it if you will or if you can, beneath an avalanche of copies of the Crisis, or the Defender, or the Independent, or reports of committees and commissions in other cities, still from under the avalanche peers the mute face of Leon Breiner, its lips silent forever."
"All your specious arguments, Mr. Darrow, all your artful ingenuity born of years of experience--all of your social theories, Mr. Hays; all your cleverly conceived psychology can never dethrone justice in this case. Leon Breiner, peacefully chatting with his neighbor at his doorstep enjoying his God-given and inalienable right to live, is shot through the back from ambush. And you can't make anything out of these facts, gentlemen of the defense, but cold-blooded murder...."
If I thought any of you had any opinion about the guilt of my clients, I wouldn't worry, because that might be changed. What I'm worried about is prejudice. They are harder to change. They come with your mother's milk and stick like the color of
the skin. I know that if these defendants had been a white group defending themselves from a colored mob, they never would have been arrested or tried. My clients are charged with murder, but they are really charged with being black....You are facing a problem of two races, a problem that will take centuries to solve. If I felt none of you were prejudiced, I'd have no fear. I want you to be as unprejudiced as you can be.
Every policeman knew that the crowd was after the Negroes. But no one batted an eye....Draw upon your imagination and think how you would feel if you fired at some black man in a black community, and then had to be tried by them....
These eleven defendants compare favorably with anyone who was in that crowd on Garland Avenue....
The danger of a mob is not what it does, but what it might do. Mob psychology is the most dreadful thing with which man
has to contend. Its action is like the starting of a prairie fire. A match in the stuble, and it spreads and spreads, devouring everything in its way....the mob was waiting to see the sacrifice of some helpless blacks. They came with malice in their hearts...
The Sweets spent their first night in their 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. Gentleman, the State has put on enough witnesses who said they were there, to make a mob.
There are persons in the North and 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.
The Trial of Henry Sweet (April-May, 1926)
[Lieutenant Paul Shellenberger was one of the Detroit police officers at the Sweet home on the night of the shooting. In his direct testimony he said the crowd outside the Sweet residence was relatively tranquil and numbered "forty or fifty." Thomas Chawke, in his cross-examination of Schellenberger forced him to admit that he had testified in the first trial that the crowd numbered "one hundred and fifty." Shellenberger also testified that he “suddenly” heard fifteen or twenty shots and saw flashes. He testified that after hearing the shots he ran to the telephone and called for reserves. In his cross-examination, Chawke asked Schelleberger about his reaction to hearing the shots:]
Q. What! While the shots rained you were running? Why didn’t you go with Schucknecht to the Sweets?
A. Why should I?
Q. Do you mean to say you let your superior officer go alone?
A. Why certainly. [Laughter in the courtroom.]....
Q. Did you see an unusual number of automobiles in that district while you were there that night?
A. I should say not.
Q. Were you present when Deputy Superintendent Sprott instructed Schucknecht to direct the traffic off of Garland Avenue?
A. I was.
Q. Did you participate in the discussion about the number of machines which were coming into that immediate
A. I did not.
Q. Do you know where the automobiles went after leaving Garland Avenue?
A. I do not.
Q. Do you know how many automobiles were parked just before this shooting on any side streets east and west of Garland Avenue?
A. I do not.
Q. Or where the occupants of those cars went?
A. I do not.
Q. You do not know whether they came back, walked back to the corner of Charlevoiz and Garland, do you?
A. I do not.
Q. Isn’t it true now, officer, that it was because there were so many machines coming into Charlevoix and Garland, that you officers determined you would divert the traffic off of Garland so as to keep them from coming up there?
A. No, sir.
Q. Then why did you not stop the traffic from coming up St. Clair and Bewick?
A. Because it was not necessary.
Q. Why wasn’t it necessary?
A. I think the streets are wider and can accommodate more cars.
Q. Tell us how many feet wider Bewick Avenue is than Garland Avenue.
A. I couldn’t tell you. I don’t think there is any difference in the width at all.
Q. Then why didn’t you stop the automobiles from going up St. Clair and Bewick?
A. Why should I?
Q. Well, you did it at Garland, did you not?
Q. Why did you do that at Garland?
A. Because we did not want any cars in the vicinity, only what really belonged there.
Q. Were there any persons coming into that vicinity in automobiles who did not belong in that neighborhood?
A. Not after the traffic was diverted.
Q. Were there before?
Q. Who were they?
A. I do not know.
Q. Was traffic getting heavy?
A. It appeared to me that people were getting curious, more so than anything else, and there was a unusual amount of
Q. Then there was an unusual amount of automobile traffic there, wasn’t there?
A. There were.