Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet by Clarence Darrow

Celebrity Defense Team

Within hours of reading the account of the arrest of Sweet and the other 10, Johnson informed the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP that the national office would assist in the defense, and hurried over to Hays' house to talk Darrow and Hays into taking the case. The fact that the national NAACP office had few resources to pay for such a high profile defense did not deter Johnson and White from pursuing the services of Darrow. Get Darrow first, they reasoned, and find the money later.

Darrow, 69 years old and ready to retire, was reluctant to engage in one last courtroom battle. (This was to be his next-to-last great case. The last one was accepted only because Darrow was financially strapped because of losses during the Depression.) After an hour or two of wooing by Johnson and White, Darrow accepted the case, and Hays was conscripted to be on the defense team.

Now, the issue for Johnson and White was to raise the funds necessary to meet Darrow's fee. Five thousand dollars was a formidable sum in 1925. They also needed to raise the money necessary to pay the fees of Hays and two local lawyers that Darrow felt were needed. Slowly, over the next several weeks, in denominations as small as 50 cents, Johnson, and particularly White, raised the money. Their goal was not only to meet the expenses of the Sweet trial, but also to establish a legal defense fund that would allow the NAACP to engage in battles across the nation. There were many holes in the dike of racial equality that the NAACP was trying to fill in 1925. Besides the Sweet case and the desire to construct the legal defense fund, the Supreme Court of the United States was about to consider a case that would ban real estate covenants that would exclude ownership based on race. It was a turning point in their fight for justice in housing. (They lost the 1925 case. It wasn't until 1948 that the Supreme Court struck down as unlawful restrictive covenants based on race.)

For most of the trial of Dr. Sweet, and his co-defendants, Walter White was present, reporting back to Johnson on a daily basis. He used particularly dramatic moments favorable to the defense as fodder for the black newspapers, and used the publicity in the NAACP fund-raising.

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