Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet by Clarence Darrow

The Problem of Race

Hays spoke first for the defense. He told the jury to remember that a man's home is his castle. He went on to say that the Declaration of Independence stated that all men were created equal, that the Constitution protected the right to bear arms, that the Michigan constitution protected the right to use arms in self-defense, and that white and black soldiers alike had defended the United States during World War I.

The jury had been prepared by Hays for the man that the large crowd had come to hear.

"My clients are charged with murder," Darrow began in a soft voice, "but they are really here because they are black."

Eighty years after the fact, it is difficult to conjure up Darrow's effect on the spectators, the jury, and Judge Murphy. His eloquence on the printed page gives some measure of his command, but the shear power of the man as it was on that day and the next in 1925 cannot be realized. Darrow's summation has been reported in bits and snatches in numerous books and articles, and even in isolated paragraphs, it is a masterpiece.

Darrow began with the problem of race. It was, after all, the central motivating force for the Garland Avenue event.

"(There are) the everlasting problems of race and color and creed that have always worked their evil in human institutions that have been taught to us and that began coming to us almost with our mother's milk, and they stick almost as the color of the skin sticks. (It) will take good, kindly, human men and women and them fiends [who] throw reason to the wind and throw justice to the wind and throw mercy to the wind I would guess that some of you maybe most of you believe that colored people should have one neighborhood and white people the other. If you ask me what I think about it, I would say I don't know. That is an idea I have an idea that that is not the right way, but I can very well understand that many very rational and considerate white people believe it; I can very well understand it."

As was his approach, Darrow, having set forth the idea that, to one degree or another, all men and women are prejudiced, he tried to extend this idea of universal prejudice by getting the jury to contemplate how race hatred affected this case. What if, he said, the situation was reversed?

"Here are eleven people, which is about as many as there are on this jury, on trial for killing a white man. Reverse this: Supposing you were charged with murder and you had shot and killed somebody, while they were gathered around your home, and the mob had been a black mob and you lived in a black man's land and you had killed a black and you had to be tried by twelve blacks, what would you think about it?"

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