Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet by Clarence Darrow

A Climate of Fear

In addition to calling witnesses that refuted the prosecution's contention that there was no mob and that the occupants of the house had nothing to fear, the defense brought forth testimony that there was indeed a climate of fear. Darrow elaborated on this point.

Darrow: "What we learn as children, we remember it gets fastened in the mind. The minds of the defendants were led to reasonably believe that great danger confronted them."

Toms: "Is everything this man saw as a child a justification for a crime 25 years later?"

Hays: "Yes. I might properly bring in the incidents his grandfather had told to him."

The most dramatic moment of the trial, the one that had been anticipated for over two weeks, arrived with the testimony of Dr. Ossian Sweet. After a considerable amount of time, Darrow, who had approached his witness slowly, as the courtroom was silent with tension, asked his first question:

"You are a Negro?"

From this apparently obvious question, Darrow proceeded to draw forth from Sweet his background, his memories of lynchings and riots, and his pursuit of his ambitions. The interrogation by the defense was friendly and supportive, and Dr. Sweet was impressive in his calmness and dignity.

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