Clarence Darrow & The Ossian Sweet Trial

Clarence Darrow & The Ossian Sweet Trial

Kevin Boyle has written a history of the famous 1925 criminal trial in Detroit involving eleven blacks who were in a house surrounded by a mob of whites when someone inside fired a shot which killed a Darrow white man. The case was twice defended by Clarence Darrow. Boyle’s book Arc of Justice traces the history of widespread bigotry against the black race and the activities of the Klu Klux Klan in Northern cities. The shooting happened on September 29, 1925 while a great mob of several hundred whites surrounded the house of a black physician Ossian Sweet which he had bought in a white residential area. The trouble had actually begun weeks earlier when seven hundred people turned out for a meeting at an elementary school for a meeting of an "improvement" association concerned with blacks moving into white residential areas. The result was emotions running high when Sweet bought his house and moved in. Quickly a crowd of several hundred people gathered. A few police were in attendance, but other then blocking streets for traffic were standing around not doing anything. Eleven blacks were in the house including Sweet, his brother, wife Gladys and friends. Anticipating trouble they had guns with them. Tensions were high and when stones were thrown that broke windows in the house, suddenly someone fired from the upstairs bedroom of the house. Leon Briner who lived a half a block from the house was struck and killed. All eleven people inside were arrested and jailed. They were interrogated by a deputy prosecuting attorney who refused to let their lawyers talk to them. The interrogation lasted most of the night. They were held without bail and charged with conspiracy to murder and murder. Sweet’s house wasn’t the only black attacked by mobs around the country for daring to purchase homes in white neighborhoods. Some of the other cases had ended with the black occupant being murdered. Because of the number of cases involving attacks on blacks attempting to move into white residential neighborhoods, the NAACP decided to make the Sweet case a model case. They wanted to hire a high profile lawyer to defend. They approached Clarence Darrow.

One interesting part of the story involves the committee sent to ask Darrow to take the case. There were three men, two Caucasian and one light skinned black who met with Darrow. Darrow was reluctant to take the case until he said to one of them that he understood the difficulties facing "your race." The man, who had dark features told Darrow he was "not a Negro." Darrow turned to the next man, also a dark featured and said "Well, you know what I mean." This man also said to Darrow "I’m not colored either." So Darrow turned to the last man who was a light skin black and said to him "I wouldn’t make the same mistake with you." To which the man replied "I am a Negro." Darrow smiled and said "That settles it. I’ll take the case."

Several things the book reports about the first trial are worth repeating. All eleven were tried at the same time. Under the criminal statutes at the time Darrow had a total of more then 300 peremptory challenges to use, but used only a handful. After the jury was finally picked Darrow said "The case is won or lost. The rest is window dressing."

When he argued the case he started out "I wish it was not my turn & that I didn’t feel it was my duty to talk to you in this case. It is not an easy matter to talk about a case of this sort and I am afraid it won’t be an easy matter to listen, but you can’t help it any more than I can." With that introduction Darrow talked for over five hours. One observer said "I’ve heard about lawyers making a judge cry, but Darrow was the first man I ever saw do it. People wept and the court room was swept away by the power of his presentation." In the end, however, in spite of his eloquence, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous agreement on all eleven defendants and a mistrial was declared.

In the first trial Darrow had been assisted by Park Avenue lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays who had worked with Darrow on the Scopes trial. Hays was tied up in another legal matter when the second Sweet trial began. Thomas Chawke, a well known criminal defense lawyer stepped in to assist instead. This time only Ossian Sweet was tried and the prosecutor announced whatever the verdict it would decide whether there would be prosecution of the other ten defendants. When Darrow argued a reporter wrote "Now dropping to a whisper, now swelling until the very walls of the building seemed to vibrate in unison, his voice went on and on. Always interesting, always fascinating, always holding the attention of judge, jurors and audience." He talked for over six hours. He concluded by saying "I ask you, gentlemen, on behalf of this defendant, on behalf of these helpless ones who turn to you, and more then 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 the human race to return a verdict of non guilty in this case!" The next morning the prosecutor made his rebuttal argument, but an observer noted that "Somehow it reminded one of the clatter of folding chairs after a symphony is over." Darrow’s elequence had resulted in the case being over when he finished and a verdict of not guilty quickly followed. The prosecutor announced that the other ten would not be tried and all charges were dropped.

One sad footnote is that Sweet’s wife died at twenty seven, probably from TB contracted while in jail and Sweet, late in his life, had financial reverses. On March 20, 1960 Ossian Sweet went into his tiny bedroom, picked up a hand gun and put a bullet in his brain.

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