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Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century…

Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a…

by Mark Curriden

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Excellent, gripping true story of a black man unjustly accused and sentenced for raping a young white woman in Chatanooga, of the appeal of his death sentence to the Supreme Court; of Justice Harlan's leading the court in gviing a stay of execution and agreeing to hear the case; of Sheriff Shipp, who allowed a mob to lynch the prisoner, despite the stay, and of the case heard in the Supreme Court. ( )
  DavidO1103 | Mar 1, 2014 |
Note. If you don't like spoilers, don't read the book since the first chapter reveals what happens right up front. Everyone else *should* read it. Often we labor under the assumption that because things are the way they are today, it must have been ever thus. This book will quickly disabuse you of that notion.

The extraordinary story of two heroic black lawyers who championed the case of an innocent man, a sheriff more interested in political advancement than justice, mob rule, and one of the very few times when the Supreme Court has issued a contempt citation for failure to follow its rulings, and the importance of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. To quote Thurgood Marshall: " The Shipp case was perhaps the first instance in which the court demonstrated the the Fourteenth Amendment and the equal protection clause have any substantive meaning to persons of the African-American race. . . .The import of the Sheriff Shipp case on the federal court's authority over state criminal cases should not be underestimated." It also meant that Justice Harlan was to become one of my most recent heroes.

The case began with the assault on a young white woman who had been walking home from work when she was attacked by a black man and although she was never able to identify him precisely, a black man roughly meeting her description by the name of Ed Johnson was arrested. There was another witness who swore he had seen Johnson with a leather strap in the vicinity. Johnson unwaveringly swore his innocence and had several witnesses who maintained he had been several miles away at a bar.

While Chattanooga had been a place of reasonable racial harmony for several years and had had no recent lynchings, (in fact, two well-respected local ministers, one having served with the union, the other with the Confederacy, were a strong force arguing against mob violence but they were out of town that evening) a mob formed when they heard someone had been arrested and was soon whipped into such a frenzy they began to batter down the doors of the jail. They were only persuaded from further violence when Sam, McReynolds, the judge assigned to the case showed up and offered to prove that Johnson was not even there. He and the Sheriff had arranged earlier in the day to have Johnson and another marginal suspect taken to another city. Finally satisfied, the mob dispersed.

Before Gideon v Wainright, suspects had few rights and were not entitled to a lawyer. Unlike most states, however, Tennessee law required that a lawyer be appointed in capital cases. Also unlike today, which practice is now forbidden, it was common for judges to meet with prosecutors to plan the prosecution. The question was whom to appoint as the defense attorneys for John after the grand jury had returned a "true bill" of indictment. Despite numerous efforts, the Sheriff had been unable to get a confession from Johnson who continued to swear to his innocence.

The authors do a masterful job of portraying the case. The three court appointed lawyers really did their best against a stacked deck, especially Judge Shepherd who, in an impassioned summation to the jury, ripped the judge and prosecutors for not giving Johnson a fair trial. Initially the jury was split 8-4 for conviction, but after the judge sent them home for the night, he met with the prosecutors. No one knows what happened during that meeting but everyone feared the eruption that would occur should Johnson be found innocent or there be a hung jury. In any case, immediately upon returning to their deliberations the next morning, the jury announced they had a verdict and all four of the holdouts had changed their minds.

The trial itself had some startling scenes with a couple of jurors, in tears, requesting that the victim be brought back to testify and *they* asked her if she could swear that Johnson was her attacker. She never could with certainty. After the verdict Shepherd wanted to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court but three more lawyers, appointed by the court, picked in a closed door meeting with the prosecution (highly unethical behavior) and, it was later admitted by the judge, two of whom were picked by the prosecution, persuaded Johnson, and the other lawyers that *even if he was innocent* it was better to be hung in the course of *justice* rather than by a lynch mob. When they announced their decision not to appeal the verdict, an extraordinary decision, the judge sentenced Johnson to hang, the penalty for rape in Tennessee.

They had failed to reckon with Noah Parden, whose resume alone is worth a book. His trip to Washington where he convinced Justice Harlan to issue a stay of execution and the later decision that resulted in the federal application of basic rights to the states under the 14th amendment is riveting. What Parden had managed to do was to persuade the Court of the need to apply the Sixth Amendment requirement of a fair trial to the states Due Process was not to mean simply did the rules get followed, but did the defendant get a fair trial. Equal Protection had to mean that black defendants would get the same presumptions of innocence and privileges accorded to white defendants.

Unfortunately, the significance was perhaps not lost on the mob, which, horrified that the federal court might deign to dispute its cherished denial of black men's rights, decided to enforce its own brand of morality. The Supreme Court has no enforcement powers but what they did was, I believe, never before, nor since done. No spoilers here, read the book.

To give you a small flavor of the endemic racism that pervaded American society at the time, it was the practice of lawyers admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court to kiss the Bible as they were sworn in. After black lawyers were admitted to the bar, that practice was dispensed with because white lawyers refused to have their lips touch anything that might have been sullied by black lips.

Ed Johnson lies today forgotten in a closed African-American cemetery under a tombstone on which is inscribed, I AM A INNOCENT MAN. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.

Interestingly, much of the research for the book was done at Tuskeegee University in Alabama which has a detailed record of virtually every lynching. Many of the original documents are in terrible shape and part of the proceeds of the book will be allocated to help the preservation of those materials.
( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
3301. Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched 100 years of Federalism, by Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips (read Mar 28, 2000) This tells of an unusual case that arose in 1906 in Chattanooga, Tennessee when Ed Johnson was convicted of raping a white girl. The trial was grossly unfair, and an appeal was granted, whereupon the defendant was lynched. I had not heard of this case before and the book does a fairly good job of telling the story, though it is weak on the legal aspects. A co-author is a lawyer, but he appears to have left the writing up to the journalist co-author. Legal procedure in Tennessee in this kind of case was appalling. This was an easy book to read and told an interesting story in a layman-like way. ( )
  Schmerguls | Nov 30, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385720823, Paperback)

Prior to 1906, the U.S. Supreme Court had never tried a criminal case--and the high court had yet to assert its power over state criminal courts. That was all to change after the events of a cold January night earlier that year in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Blond, beautiful, 21-year-old Nevada Taylor had hopped on one of Chattanooga's new electric trolleys after work. Before she could reach home, the young woman was waylaid and raped by an unknown assailant. At first Taylor couldn't describe her attacker to town sheriff Joseph Shipp, as she hadn't seen the man clearly, but she soon became convinced he was "a Negro with a soft, kind voice." In just 17 days, a drifter dubbed a "Negro fiend" by the Chattanooga News had been hastily arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang.

Two idealistic black lawyers intervened, filing appeals to the state and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court, citing the numerous rights denied the most-likely innocent Ed Johnson. (One of the attorneys said of the suspect, "But for the will of God, that is me.") The high court agreed to hear the appeal, staying the Tennessee execution. But back in Chattanooga, the politically minded Sheriff Shipp looked the other way as a bloodthirsty crowd of hundreds broke Johnson out of jail, beat him brutally, and lynched him on the county bridge.

Mark Curriden, a legal writer for the Dallas Morning News, and Leroy Phillips, a Chattanooga trial attorney, have painstakingly researched and vividly recounted the events of this oft-overlooked but significant episode in America's legal history, from the details of the original crime to the eventual federal conviction of Shipp and members of the lynch mob for contempt. A superb combination of journalistic storytelling and academic rigor. --Paul Hughes

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:41 -0400)

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