Thomas Massie Trial: 1932

views updated

Thomas Massie Trial: 1932

Defendants: Grace Fortescue, Albert 0. Jones, Edward J. Lord, and Thomas H. Massie
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clarence Darrow, George S. Leisure, Lieutenant L.H.C. Johnson, U.S.N., Frank Thompson, and Montgomery Winn
Chief Prosecutors: John C. Kelley and Barry S. Ulrich
Judge: Charles S. Davis
Place: Honolulu, Hawaii
Dates of Trial: April 4-29, 1932
Verdict: Guilty, second-degree murder
Sentences: 10 years imprisonment at hard labor, commuted to one hour in the dock

SIGNIFICANCE: The Thomas Massie trial provides a footnote to history as the last appearance of world-famous lawyer Clarence Darrow in a headline-making case. It provides a penetrating glimpse into the relationship between U.S. personnel stationed in the Hawaiian Territory before World War II and the island's natives and other "foreigners." And it proves that it is possible for murderers sentenced to 10 years to go free after serving only one hour.

In Honolulu, Hawaii, on September 12, 1931, 31-year-old Navy Lieutenant Thomas H. Massie and his 21-year-old wife, Thalia, attended a Saturday night party. Bored with her husband's boisterous U.S. Naval Academy classmates, Thalia took a stroll outdoors. Missing her toward midnight, Tom phoned home. Thalia answered: "Come home at once. Something terrible has happened."

Tom Massie found his wife hysterical, her face bleeding and bruised. She had been seized on the roadside by several natives, she said, driven to an abandoned animal quarantine station, punched in the jaw when she resisted, raped by five men of mixed race, and abandoned. She had flagged down a car whose driver had taken her home.

Tom Massie called the police. Together they took Thalia Massie to the hospital. Medical examination disclosed that her jaw was broken but did not produce conclusive evidence of rape. After examination and treatment, they went to police headquarters. There Thalia Massie suddenly remembered the license number of the car used by her assailantsa number only one digit different from one described earlier in the hospital's busy emergency room in another incident. Soon the police brought in Horace Ida, who admitted that he and four friends had had an altercation with another woman that night but denied assaulting Thalia Massie. The other fourDavid Takai, Henry Chang, Joe Kahahawai, and Benny Ahakuelowere equally adamant. Thalia Massie identified Kahahawai, a well-known prizefighter who had a criminal record, as the assailant who broke her jaw.

Mother-in-Law Takes Charge

A cable from Tom Massie to the mainland brought Thalia Massie's mother, Grace (Mrs. Granville) Fortescue, a domineering woman accustomed to issuing orders from her high position in the social register. She immediately took charge. While Hawaii was abuzz with doubt that Horace Ida and his friends were indeed the assailants, and with equal doubt whether rape had indeed occurred, Fortescue had no doubt. She pushed the Naval commandant, Rear Admiral Yates Stirling, to increase the Navy's already strong pressure on the authorities to prosecute the suspects.

Their trial lasted three weeks. The jury then deliberated for 97 hours but failed to reach agreement. Fortescue demanded that the defendants be held without bail for the new trial. The judge was not empowered to hold them, but he ordered them to report to the courthouse daily.

Impatient and headstrong, Grace Fortescue decided to kidnap Kahahawai and force a confession. When he reported at the courthouse on the morning of January 9, he was intercepted by Navy enlisted man Albert 0. Jones, who had a fake summons prepared by Fortescue and told him that "Major Ross" of the Territorial Police wanted him. Jones and enlisted man Edward J. Lord, both of whom were Navy boxers, hustled Kahahawai into a rented car driven by Massie, who was disguised as a chauffeur.

When Kahahawai missed his courthouse appearance, the police suspected the Massies. The rented car was spotted, stopped, and searched. In it were Massie, Fortescue, sailor Lord, and, on the floor of the back seat, the body of Kahahawai, who had been shot with a. 32-caliber gun. Sailor Jones, drunk, was shortly found at Fortescue's rented house.

All four were charged with murder and imprisoned aboard the decommissioned U.S.S. Alton in Pearl Harbor. All Navy personnel were confined to base. The native population was treated as if the rape of white women were typical behavior. Demonstrations and riots among mainland whites, island natives, and Asians broke out time and again.

Fortescue's friends advised enlisting the best legal mind from the mainland. That meant Clarence Darrow, America's most famous trial lawyer. Now 75, Darrow had been in semiretirement four years. Much of his reputation had been built on his understanding of racial minorities and on his many court fights on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. When Fortescue's friends approached him, he turned them down, writing:

I learned that one who tried this case could scarcely avoid discussing race conflict. I had so long and decidedly fought for the Negro and all so-called "foreigners" that I could not put myself in a position where I might be compelled to take a position, even in a case, at variance with what I had felt and stood for.

Darrow's retirement savings had been severely depleted by the Great Depression. When Grace Fortescue sent word that he would have complete control of defense strategy, he changed his mind. His own friends then charged him with "selling out" to reactionaries. The lurid stories in the American press about Naval officers and socialites who took the law into their own hands had led them to believe that Tom Massic and Grace Fortescue were not the typical underdogs whom Darrow had always defended.

The trial opened on April 4, 1932. For a week, prosecutor John C. Kelley detailed the events that led to Kahahawai's death. He did not try to show who fired the shot that killed the prizefighter, however, as under Hawaiian law all four were considered equally guilty of homicide.

In the packed courtroom, Darrow launched the defense by putting Massie on the stand to describe the assault on his wife. Kelley objected: Massie's account could be relevant only if the defense planned to prove insanity. That, said Darrow, was the aim. Kelley asked which defendant was insane. Darrow said, "The one who shot the pistol," but he did not identify that one.

As tears flowed throughout the courtroom, Darrow took Tom Massie painfully through the kidnapping to the point where he remembered grilling Kahahawai in Fortescue's house while holding a. 32-caliber automatic pistol provided by Jones. Kahahawai, he remembered, admitted after lengthy questioning that he and his friends had raped and beaten Thalia Massie. Then, asked Darrow, "Do you remember what you did?"

"No, sir."

"Do you know what became of the gun?"

"No, I do not, Mr. Darrow."

"Do you know what became of you?"

"No, sir."

Darrow introduced two psychiatrists who testified that, while Massie was now sane, he had been insane at the time of the kidnapping. One described his condition as "chemical insanity" brought on by changes in body chemistry resulting from the strain of the event.

"Is this Your Handwriting?"

Darrow called Thalia Massie. She sobbed through her description of the kidnapping and Jones' telling her of Kahahawai's death. The courtroom was awash in tears. Then, cross-examining, Kelley handed her a sheet of papera psychological self-analysis she had made while a student at the University of Hawaiiwhile asking, "Is this your handwriting?"

Instantly, Thalia Massie was transformed from a pathetic mass of tears to an indignant blaze of fury. "Where did you get this? Don't you know this is a confidential communication between doctor and patient?" She tore the paper into tiny bits. "I refuse to say whether that is my handwriting or not. What right have you to bring this into a public court?" To a burst of applause, she tossed the fragments aside.

"Thank you, Mrs. Massie," said Kelley. "At last you've shown yourself in your true colors."

Said Darrow to reporters afterward, "I've seen some pretty good court scenes but nothing like that one. I was pretty limp when it was all over."

It took the jury nearly 50 hours to find the four defendants guilty of manslaughter. Judge Charles S. Davis sentenced each to 10 years at hard labor. Governor Lawrence Judd then said he would grant executive clemency if the Massies and Fortescue would agree not to press for a retrial of the rape case, for the governor was determined to end the racial disturbances throughout Hawaii caused by the issue. The prosecutors agreed. Darrow got Thalia Massie to agree. The governor commuted the sentences to one hour in the courtroom dock.

Massie's naval career was destroyed by the trial. He died at 44 in 1944, 10 years after he and Thalia Massie were divorced. Thalia Massie died in 1963 after years of depression and several attempted suicides. Her mother had died years earlier.

Clarence Darrow had worked all his life toward reducing tension and conflict between races. While he lost the Massie trial in terms of the jury verdict, he was pleased to have accepted a jury of mixed races and to have avoided racial overtones in the testimony despite his clients' attitudes.

He died in 1938 without ever again handling a headline-making trial.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Nash, Jay Robert. Encyclopedia of World Crime. Wilmette, Ill.: CrimeBooks, 1991.

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

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

About this article

Thomas Massie Trial: 1932

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article