Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet by Clarence Darrow

The Participants

While the nationally famous Clarence Darrow and the only slightly less known Arthur Garfield Hays were virtually household names in the first three decades of the 20th Century, the other legal participants were not unimportant men. The celebrity defense team was joined by two local attorneys, Julian Perry (a Wilberforce classmate of Dr. Sweet's) and Thomas Chawke, a Detroit lawyer who had successfully defended a number of local mob figures.

Judge, Frank Murphy
Judge, Frank Murphy

Both of the prosecutors, Robert Toms and his assistant Robert Moll, later became circuit judges. The trial judge, Frank Murphy, would eventually become mayor of Detroit, governor of the Philippines, governor of Michigan, Attorney General of the United States, and, in the culmination of his career, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. All in all, these men were a formidable group.

Joe Mack, Sweet's employee
Joe Mack, Sweet's employee

The 11 defendants were all African-Americans. Besides Ossian Sweet, his wife Gladys, and his two brothers Henry and Otis, the other seven were respectable middle-class men three insurance agents, a federal narcotics agent, and two employees of Dr. Sweet.

Morris Murray, Sweet's employee
Morris Murray, Sweet's employee

In addition to those directly involved in the case defendants, prosecution, defense, the judge, an all-white jury of 12 middle-aged to elderly men omnipresent was the NAACP with either Walter White or James Weldon Johnson. Juxtaposed with the NAACP were the mayoral candidates, locked in a tight campaign at the very time the trial was to begin. The election itself occurred on the third day of jury selection.

The Klan candidate, Charles Bowles, received 100,000 votes (out of some 250,000 cast), losing to the incumbent, John Smith, by 30,000 votes. Smith, a reasonably successful mayor in his attempts to improve relations between the races, walked a fine line in his campaign in order to avoid alienating the large segment of the voting population who were anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jewish. Bowles and his Klan supporters were spurred by the efforts of Detroit's KKK leader, the grand kleagle, Ira Stout, who, in backing Bowles, said, "We're going to have a clean, Christian American in public office" (quoted in Vine, One Man's Castle, 2004).

Therefore, Detroit had a sensational case with celebrated defense lawyers and well respected prosecutors, with an ambitious but fair-minded judge, set in a sea of racial and political unrest. It was little wonder that crowds of spectators lined up for the few seats in the courtroom.

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