in the case of
PEOPLE V. HENRY SWEET
In the RECORDERS COURT
THE HONORABLE FRANK MURPHY
Monday, May 10th, 1926
[During the afternoon of the first day of argument, Thomas Chawke presented the first closing for the defense. Chawke, an eminent Detroit lawyer, served as Darrow's co-counsel in the second trial. His closing, about a quarter of which is presented below (largely the introduction and conclusion), is the shortest of the four closings. It served to introduce some themes in Darrow's much longer presentation the following day, particularly the radically different way that the defense construed the evidence as to the threatening character of the crowd outside the Sweet house. Chawke's style, however, is simultaneously more ornate and much less pointed than Darrow's – on the whole, probably more typical of courtroom orators in his day. Further, although Chawke certainly insists on the racial aspect of the case, he is not nearly as bold as Darrow in developing the racial theme; where Darrow openly implicates the jurors themselves in the pattern of racism that he believes to underlie the trial, Chawke appeals more gently to their better side. It repays the effort to compare these two speeches from a rhetorical standpoint.
[I have edited this speech using the unofficial transcript made by the
NAACP of the closing arguments; a copy of the transcript survives in the
Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library. This
transcript is unfortunately far from perfect, and at places difficult to
read, especially for the Chawke speech. I have changed a few misspellings
and the paragraphing, and also added a few historical notes. —Prof. Bruce
W. Frier, Law School, The University of Michigan]
|"I Count It a High Honor"|
|"This Case Marks an Epoch in the History of This City"|
|"Were These People in the Wrong?"|
|"The Truth Lies on Our Side"|
|"Great Bodily Harm Was about to Be Done to Them"|
|"These Men under the Law Had a Right to Fire"|
|"It Is Far Better for Leon Breiner to Be in his Grave"|
|"I Summon You to the Side of the Chief Executive Officer of this City"|
|"Do for Them What You Would Want Them to Do for You"|
Introduction: "I Count It a High Honor"
MR. CHAWKE: If it please the court, and gentlemen of the jury, it is with a feeling of profound gratitude that I arise to present this man's defense to you, for I appreciate the high honor which he has done me in selecting me to assist in a defense in the charge of crime which is made, not only against him, but against ten others of his race. And the lawyer to whom the responsibility comes to defend an innocent man, charged with murder, a feeling ordinarily moves him to a sense of appreciation that fires his soul, with a desire to see that the rights of that innocent man will be protected insofar as he is able so to protect them. And in this case, if in this argument I shall depart somewhat from the testimony, not intentionally, but because of the zeal that I possess, I trust that you will bear with me and attribute it to my zeal in behalf of this man and his fellows rather than in any intentional desire to lead you astray.
I say, I count it a high honor, because I believe that any member of my profession standing here today, where I stand, would account it a high honor to protect the rights, not only of one man, but of ten others besides him, because in this case there is not only involved the liberty of Henry Sweet, but there is involved indirectly the liberty of ten others besides, and when I contemplate what this is all about, I wonder why it was that they selected me.
Never before was I so conscious of my limitations as I am now, when I consider that a citizen of these United States, within the constitutional protection of his own home, is attacked and in defense of himself, his wife and his friends, he is taken to court and is compelled to spend not only days, but weeks, in defense of that which it was not only his right, but his duty to assert. I feel my own unworthiness and wish that someone else other than I had this responsibility now. Oh, that the voice of Wendell Phillips [noted Abolitionist crusader, 1811-1884: ed.] had not been stilled in death, that he were here with all of his eloquence, with all of his powers of reasoning, to direct your steps along that pathway which will lead to a righteous verdict, when tolerance will triumph over intolerance, charity over hate.
"This Case Marks an Epoch in the History of this City"
Did it ever occur to you that in your time, that the responsibility which is yours, would ever be assumed by any one of you? Pursuing the peaceful avocations that were yours, it possibly never occurred to any one of you that the day would ever dawn that it would be your right and your duty to determine whether one of your fellow men should go to jail for the rest of his life, or leave the court-room a free man under an indictment of murder.
I say that this is a great case. I say that this case marks an epoch in the history of this city. To those of you who have been lifelong residents of this town, as I have, the memory of your yesterdays must present a picture to you of a happy and a contented citizenry, a citizenry that respected the right of the others in the town, without any regard for color or creed or nationality. But I say, we have a picture presented by this record, of an attempt to deny to a man that which is his constitutional right to live where he wished to live, unhampered and unattacked by anyone, and what crime has been committed here by Dr. Sweet and his co-defendants? That they moved into a neighborhood where they had a legal right to move, no one disputes. That they moved into a house which they had a right to live in, no one denies. But because some persons in the neighborhood did not want them, they were compelled to resist an attack upon them, even at the expense of discharging fire-arms.
"Were These People in the Wrong?"
Immediately there must be presented to you the query, "Were these people in the wrong?" Surely, when they moved into this house on September 8th, they violated no law. Surely when they brought arms into that house, they violated no law, because the Constitution and the statutes of the state gives a person the right to bear arms in defense of himself and his habitation, particularly, within his own home.
So, when Dr. Sweet for self-protection armed himself within the sacred confines of his own home, he was within the purview of the law. On September 8th, when he moved in, under police protection, he created himself no disturbance, nor did any of the persons who assisted him in entering the house. His possession of the house during the 8th day of September was peaceful. He created no disturbance, and in no sense did anything that should make himself offensive to his neighbors except he was black, and they were white.
Prejudice and sympathy are now invoked to send this man and co-defendants to jail for life. I say, prejudice, because you twelve men, and every one in this courtroom, knows, that if the situation were reversed, and eleven white men were in this house, and a crowd of colored people threatened the white people in the house, that there would not be any such trial as this. Why mince words in connection with this situation? Why deny that the greatest asset that the State has in this case is prejudice, and the greatest handicap that we have on this side of the table is prejudice? But I thought that this case was fraught with nothing but disastrous things, and apart from the testimony, when I viewed here the sinister figure of prejudice sitting before you twelve men, in despite of justice, – but as I sat here this morning, and I saw an attempt made to arouse that prejudice, in order to becloud the issue here, so that you twelve men would not decide this case upon the testimony in the case and the charge in the court, I was amazed to think that a public prosecutor at this eventual hour should go to the burial place of Leon Breiner and drag his helpless body before you in order that you might send Henry Sweet to jail because Leon Breiner is dead, and Henry Sweet is black instead of white. ...
We are demanding for him that which we would demand for you if
you were here, and he and his ten companions were where you sit now.
Could we ask at your hands, without being recreant to the duty we have,
anything less? Could we demand in the name of justice of you anything
more? That right may prevail over might—we ask that in this case
that you courageously say that this boy and his brothers were justified
in doing what they did that night. ...
"The Truth Lies on Our Side"
I know you twelve men have no motive in sitting here, as you do. I know that you have no purpose here, except to see that justice is done, between the defendant and the state, but I have an abiding sense of appreciation the you abhor injustice, and that you love justice. I feel that you are desirous of setting your faces determinedly against falsity, and that you, your countenances become brightened when you hear the truth.
And right now, we claim in this case that the truth does not lie on the side of the State, but that the truth lies on our side. We claim that there was a crowd in the neighborhood of this case on the 8th of September and on the 9th; that this crowd constituted a mob, that it attacked this man within his own home, and in defense of himself, he had a right to resist the assault made upon him.
We believe that it is not lawful for any number of citizens to band themselves together under the high sounding title of the neighborhood improvement association which has for its purpose the invasion of the constitutional rights of those of the citizenship who do not belong to the association, or not in sympathy with them. In this case there is not any question about it, that the purpose of the formation of the Waterworks Improvement Association, was to drive these people out of the neighborhood. Every one of these witnesses who tool the stand admitted that he did not want a colored man in his neighborhood; that he joined ostensibly the Waterworks Improvement Association is order to assist in the enforcement of the law, but when his real purpose was revealed after cross examination, it was apparent to you that they all joined this association for the purpose of keeping the negro out.
[In the main portion of his argument, Chawke discusses in detail the defense's reasons for regarding the Waterworks Park Improvement Association (this is its correct name) as a racist organization bent on using violence in order to force the Sweets from their home. He goes on to describe the night of September 9th: the intense automobile traffic as the white crowd assembled in the area of the Sweet house; the clear police recognition that the situation was getting out of hand; the mounting fears among the Sweets and their relatives; the failure of the police to intervene and control the crowd, but also evidence that the police themselves regarded the Sweets as justified in trying to defend themselves; and, above all, the testimony of the defense witnesses, both black and white, regarding the size of the crowd and the menace that it posed. With some regret, Chawke states his belief "that the officers of the law were in sympathy that night with the crowd." (Darrow will be far more blunt.) Chawke concludes:]
"Great Bodily Harm Was about to Be Done to Them"
Tell me the disinterested witnesses in this case. Are they
on the State's side, or are they on our side? Let us eliminate the
eleven colored people in the house, and let us accept as true the testimony
of Adler [Philip Adler, a newspaper reporter for the Detroit News and
a main defense witness: ed.], the testimony of the fireman, the testimony
of Mrs. Hintiez [a neighbor, also a defense witness: ed.],—all disinterested
witnesses; and what do you find? You find a crowd assembled, and
an attack made upon this man's home; the crowd being established by reputable
and creditable testimony in the case; and the attack on this house being
conclusively demonstrated; and it is for you to say whether, from the presence
of the crowd, and the attack made upon this house, the occupants thereof
reasonably believed that great bodily harm was about to be done to them.
Why, it was not the picture of a friendly crowd that these colored people saw from this house on that night, with all of the age-long persecution of their race before them, with the memory of what had happened almost yesterday in the city of Detroit, when three or four colored people were attacked in their own homes and driven therefrom by violence, rose before them and created a sense of fear that must have terrified every man and woman in that house, that must have caused them to believe that their presence outside meant harm, and that they were about to be attacked.
"These Men under the Law Had a Right to Fire"
Why, if I were colored, and if I had been the victim, and my people, of the persecution of the ages; if I had heard recited at my mother's knee about how my people had been lynched, and the law taken by the whites into their own hands, and innocent victims of mod rage being taken out in the public highway, and their lives taken from them; if I had read in the papers and periodicals of my own race, of a number of lynchings, and the number of executions, and the number of unlawful violent deaths of colored brought about by white people; and if, in addition to that, I had read impartial accounts in the daily newspapers of the city, read alike by white and colored people, but more by white than by colored people, and I read an impartial account of a racial disturbance within my own city; and if that big crowd of five hundred people assembled in front of my house; if I had been warned that they were going to drive me out of that neighborhood; then, their presence there would be a threat against my life.
And I say that, under the law, the presence there of this crowd
in front of that house, when you consider the mental attitude of the people
within the house, constituted a threat against their lives and their property,
and put them in fear. And when that threat was carried into being,
by violence being exerted upon the house, these men under the law had a
right to fire. There was no cowardice in firing then. I admire
the courage of a man who will defend himself when he is attacked.
And there is no law in this country or elsewhere that compels a man to retreat from his own castle and his own door. He may stand at his door and defy all of the king's army and all of the king's men. The tyrant with all his hordes behind him may not step foot upon his thresh-hold. But armed with the protection which the fundamental law of the land gives him, he has a right to meet the invader at the door. Did they invade his house? Why, they attacked it with a barrage of stones. Eleven human beings were ambushed in that house. Didn't they have a right to expect, when the windows were broken, and the stones came in upon them, that it was going to be followed up by an invasion of their thresh-hold, just as had happened at Dr. Turner's house, when they went right into the house and compelled him to sign an option for his property? Didn't they have a right to expect that their property would be demolished? ...
Gentlemen of the jury, what would you have them do? Would
you have them wait until this mob had rushed up that front porch, broken
down the door, and taken this woman, this mother, out of that house, and
despoiled her, and taken the lives of Ossian Sweet, and Davis and Washington
and the rest of them, before Henry Sweet fired?
Oh, you did not give the crowd an opportunity to bring about their complete vengeance. (Addressing the defendant Henry Sweet.) You did not wait until your death-knell was sounded. You did not wait until your brother's body was dangling from a post. You did not wait until your sister's body was buried in a new-made grave. And because of that, they say that you had no right to fire.
Tell me what this is all about. Tell me, shouldn't these men have waited until the crowd had rushed into that house, and wreaked its vengeance? Wreaked its vengeance? Shouldn't they have waited until the streets of Detroit were red with their blood? Shouldn't they have waited until the riot assumed the same proportions that it did in Chicago and East St. Louis, before they defended themselves? Thanks to Henry Sweet, thanks to Dr. Sweet, for having invoked the natural law, for having exercised the right of self-defense.
"It Is Far Better for Leon Breiner to Be in His Grave"
Leon Breiner of course unfortunately was shot. But it is far better for Leon Breiner to be in his grave, than this city, of whose accomplishments I am justly proud, should be held up to the world as a place where law and order no longer prevails, but bloodshed and violence rules forth? May the day never dawn when neighbor will be arrayed against neighbor in this city where I have spent the best part of my life, and, please God, I hope to die. Here, where I have rubbed elbows with my fellow townsmen, all of these now nearly forty years; here, where I have partaken of the hospitality of Jew and Gentile, colored man and white man; where, where I have grown amidst an atmosphere surcharged with the spirit of liberality: that this place that I have selected as my home, should ever become a place where the victim of mob fury and race hatred should be slaughtered like innocent children in the streets! Tell me, where will this lead today? It is the colored man that is the victim of this particular intolerance. Tomorrow, who will be the citizen, what portion of our citizenry will it be said to that you have rights under the law, but that you dare not exercise them?
In behalf of these eleven men, who committed no crime, but who defended themselves against a mob attack, I ask your favorable consideration of the defense they have made here. I appeal not to your passion, your prejudice nor your sympathy, but I ask of you, as I said at the outset, that you do these men justice. And it is justice that we ask, and it is justice that we demand,—that justice which was denied us on September 9th in our own home, when a mob attempted an invasion of our rights, a mob which took our property without process of law, and was bent on driving us out of our homes, even at the sacrifice of our lives.
I am sorry that this situation has been brought about, and a person
living in this town was compelled to offer up his life upon the altar of
hate. But I say to you that this is a time when men's souls must
be tried. This is a time when the ideal of American justice is put
to test. This is a time when there shall be demonstrated whether
courts of justice are established for the protection of the innocent, or
whether they are to be employed as an engine of destruction.
"I Summon You to the Side of the Chief Executive Officer of this City"
Without passion, and without hate, without enmity or avarice, but with a hero's high resolve to do your duty, I trust, my fellow townsmen, that you will take this case to the sanctity of your jury-room, and there, as the golden sunshine of another day illuminates your deliberations, to dispel the clouds of prejudice, fairly and impartially you will analyze the testimony in this case, without rancor, without bitterness, with hearts without hate, with souls filled with hope and with charity, you will do unto this man that which you would expect him to do unto you.
No greater opportunity was ever presented to twelve citizens of
this city to speak the voice of tolerance. No greater opportunity
was ever given any man to level bigotry than is the opportunity which is
You have chosen as your chief executive officer a man who has denounced, and who did denounce on July 12th last year, bigotry and intolerance, and who feared that this race hatred might be the lasting stain upon the good name of the city, the man who said, "The condition which faces Detroit is one which faced Washington, East St. Louis, Chicago and other large cities. The result in those cities was one which Detroit must avoid if possible. A single fatal riot would injure this city beyond remedy." [Chawke refers to John W. Smith, the Mayor of Detroit: ed.]
I summon you to the side of the chief executive officer of this
city. I ask you to let him lead the way, under the standard of tolerance
and charity and good will towards all men that he has raised, above the
strife, the turmoil, the hatred and enmity which some professional agitators
would bring into this community to cause hate to run its riotous way.
If you do your duty here, there isn't any doubt about it, and you will
leave this court-room with heads erect, conscious of the fact that you
have contributed a vital part towards the destruction of bigotry; that
you have stood out like a beacon light to illuminate the path of these
benighted colored men, as they go through the streets of Detroit, warning
everybody that whether they be black or white, they have rights which every
person must observe, and no man dare take the law into his own hands.
"Do for Them What You Would Want Them to Do for You"
Tell me, my fellow townsmen, what will your answer be? You have justice on the one side, and injustice on the other. You have hatred and enmity, as against love, charity and good will. These will dominate your deliberations, one or the other. We will permit you to go now, conscious of the fact that this verdict will be a righteous one; that Detroit will take its place among the fair cities of this country, as a place where government prevails, under an orderly administration; where bloodshed and riot are denounced as pernicious things, things, like a cancer, they eat their way into the body politic and bring about its ruin.
I ask you, from the bottom of my heart, as white men, such as you are, that you do for them what you would want them to do for you. I want you gentlemen of the jury to see this testimony in the broad light of a spirit of fairness, to the end that a righteous verdict will be returned as between the people and the state. We visualize you, with smiles upon your countenances, walking forth from this jury room, after we have heard the stentorian of your foreman as he announces, "Not guilty."
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