Sweet Trials: 1925-26

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Sweet Trials: 1925-26

Defendants: Ossian and Henry Sweet
Crimes Charged: Conspiracy to commit murder and murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clarence Darrow, Arthur Garfield Hays, and Thomas Chawke
Chief Prosecutors: Robert M. Toms and Lester S. Moll
Judge: Frank Murphy
Place: Detroit, Michigan
Dates of Trials: First trial: November 1925; second trial: April-May 1926
Verdicts: First trial: Mistrial/hung jury; second trial: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The Sweet trials revealed the growing racial tension in northern and Midwestern cities following World War I, and provided a dress rehearsal for more such episodes during the Civil Rights era 30 years later.

During the First World War, thousands of African-American families moved from the south to the industrial cities of the north, such as Detroit, in search of high-paying, wartime jobs. While they found the employment that they were after, they also learned that they had not escaped the racism that they had experienced in the southern states. Northern white attitudes were hostile to the black newcomers, and northern society and neighborhoods remained closed to them. The few neighborhoods in which these African-Americans settled soon grew overcrowded and filthy.

Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black Detroit physician, moved to the city in 1924, after studying for a time in Vienna and Paris, where he had worked with Marie Curie. Having recently married and fathered a child, he wished to avoid the slums and find decent housing. By 1925, one or two black friends of his had bought homes in white neighborhoods, but they soon left in the face of white hostility. Sweet was determined not to let the same thing happen to him.

In the summer of 1925, Sweet found a house at 2905 Garland Avenue, in a lower-middle-class, white neighborhood. The sellers were a white woman and her light-skinned, black husband. Perhaps this made Sweet think that the neighbors would accept him and his family, but in reality (as events would later show) the neighbors had probably thought the husband was white. At any rate, Sweet moved in with the help of his brothers, Otis and Henry, as well as a few friends. Among his possessions were enough guns and ammunition for the entire groupjust in case they were neededwhen the Sweet family moved in on September 8.

Menacing Crowd Gathers

The Ku Klux Klan had been very active in the area recently. One result of this was the organization of the neighborhood Waterworks Park Improvement Association, which had formed shortly after Sweet bought the Garland Avenue house, and which was in reality a group designed to keep the neighborhood all white. The day that the Sweets moved in, a white crowd began to gather outside the house. Eventually the mob disbanded, but the following evening a new one formed. Later testimony as to its size varied, but the best evidence suggests that it consisted of a few hundred people. Among them were several police officers, who were there because Sweet had asked for police protection.

The second evening after the Sweets moved in, with Sweet and 10 others inside the house, the crowd grew restless, and some people began throwing stones and breaking windows after the arrival of Otis Sweet and William Davis, a family friend. Others yelled racial epithets. Suddenly gunfire erupted from several windows of the house. Across the street Leon Breiner fell dead, and another man suffered a leg wound. After the gunfire ended, the police burst into the house and arrested everyone inside. Within a few weeks prosecutors sought indictments against the 11 occupants for conspiracy to commit murder.

Darrow for the Defense

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) soon turned to Clarence Darrow for help. At the time Darrow was perhaps the nation's most celebrated attorney. Darrow, long a champion of the underdog, agreed to take the case. The first trial took place in the Detroit Recorder's Court in November 1925. The judge was the liberal and humanitarian Frank Murphy, who later became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. The chief prosecutor was Robert M. Toms, whom Darrow afterward described as "one of the fairest and most humane prosecutors that I ever met."

The facts of the case were unfavorable for the defendants. The crowd had been restless and abusive, yes, but no one had tried to enter Sweet's house forcibly, so under Michigan law, self-defense would nor be easy to prove. That the gunfire seemed to come in a volley, as if prearranged, indicated provocation on the part of those inside, rather than self-defense. Breiner had been shot in the back, so he himself could not have been an aggressor.

On the other hand, the prosecutors' case wasn't all that cut and dried, either, and it was mismanaged. Toms called a large number of witnesses, all of them white, to show that the "crowd" was really quite small. However, Darrow's incisive cross-examination revealed that the police had coached some, and perhaps most (if not all), of the witnesses to say this. Darrow also attacked the prosecution for relying upon the theory of conspiracy to commit murder, which the prosecution had to do since it could not prove who in the house had fired the fatal shot, much less show who had fired at all. Darrow once called conspiracy "the favorite weapon of every tyrant an effort to punish the crime of thought."

Darrow, despite the restrictive Michigan definition, used the argument of self-defense to explain what had happened that night. Calling upon Ossian Sweet himself to tell his story, Darrow tried to make this case symbolic of earlier black persecution.

"When I saw that mob," Sweet said, "I realized in a way that I was facing that same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history. I realized my back was against the wall and I was filled with a particular type of fearthe fear of one who knows the history of my race."

After deliberating for three days, the all-white jury announced that it could not reach a verdict, and Murphy declared a mistrial. Five months later, in April 1926, Toms indicted Henry Sweet, who finally admitted to firing a gun, bringing him to trial a second time for murder. Judge Murphy again presided, and both Toms and Darrow used much the same litigation tactics that they had employed in the first trial. This time, Sweet was acquitted, and the following July Toms moved to dismiss the charges against all of the other defendants.

Although Darrow had argued more famous cases, he considered the Sweet trials to be his greatest personal triumph. The issues brought forth in these trials presaged the growing racial tensions throughout the country that would eventually give rise to the Civil Rights movement.

Buckner F. Melton, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Darrow, Clarence. The Story of My Life. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1932.

Fine, Sidney. Frank Murphy. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1975.

Tierney, Kevin. Darrow: A Biography. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979.

Weinberg, Arthur and Lila Weinberg. Clarence Darrow: A Sentimental Rebel. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1980.