Clarence Darrow and Arthur Garfield Hays ask for their clients to be released on bail and inform Frank Murphy they want each defendant to be retried separately. While the mistrial hardly represents a surprise, given the length of the jury’s deliberations, it’s still a disappointing setback, given how well things seemed to have been going for the defense. The defense exposed glaring holes in the state’s case.
The defendants didn’t win the first trial—offering a sad reminder that progress towards equality and civil rights is slow and full of setbacks. This feels especially true since the prosecution’s case was so weak. Still, in the name of justice and civil rights, the defense lawyers plan to continue their efforts.
Although attention in the white press has shifted from Detroit to a more salacious race trial in New York, the Sweets’ story has successfully crossed the press’s color line in strategic places such as the progressive magazine The Nation. And in Detroit, all the dailies side with the Sweets, representing a remarkable turnaround in white opinion in the city. Further, ongoing rallies—including a mid-December event in New York featuring Clarence Darrow himself—fill the coffers of the hoped-for Legal Defense Fund.
Despite the trial’s limited ability to hold public attention, its press coverage nevertheless does change public opinion among white Detroiters. This is true even in newspapers that supported the Klan’s candidate in the fall’s mayoral election. And the trial’s star power—now concentrated in Clarence Darrow and Ossian and Gladys Sweet—continues to attract the money necessary to continue the NAACP’s fight for civil rights.
Frank Murphy grants the defense’s request to release the remaining defendants but sets their bail prohibitively high. The poorer men, like Joe Mack and Norris Murray, have trouble securing funds, but the higher-profile ones—including Ossian—soon walk free. The Sweets don’t return to Garland Avenue; the Waterworks Association has resumed meeting and the house has been subject to vandalism. They stay in the apartment Gladys rented in another white neighborhood. Throughout December, Black and progressive newspapers roundly praise Ossian’s “unparalleled courage” and hold him up as “an exemplar of the New Negro ideal,” fighting for his rights as a citizen.
The fact that Mack and Murray have trouble making bail—and that their struggle seems to be an afterthought to the rest of the defense team—offers a subtle reminder that race isn’t the only source of social division: education, class, and political status also divide American society into powerful and powerless classes. Paradoxically, the trauma of the trial has helped Ossian achieve more of his American Dream: his has earned the right to consider himself a member of the talented tenth and a representative of his race. Still, this status comes at a steep cost.
Ossian and Gladys travel to New York City as the special guests and headlining celebrities of the NAACP’s annual business meeting in January 1925 where a crowd of 1,500 Black Harlem residents applauds them at a rally. From there, they spend two weeks touring various NAACP branches in Northeast and Midwest states. Ossian, his ego inflated by the stories he hears about himself, begins “thunder[ing]” at the audiences with a mix of “exaggeration, self-righteousness, and more than a touch of arrogance,” according to NAACP representatives. And his growing hero complex leads to conflict with Gladys, who had been the defendants’ public face since the fall. But their tour pushes the Legal Defense Fund to $76,000—one and a half times its initial goal.
The trial has made Ossian and Gladys into heroes and celebrities in the civil rights movement. Ossian embraces the role—and perhaps even lets it go to his head—because it helps him to fulfil his American Dream of status, respect, and success. The circumstances under which he’s achieved this attention offer a reminder of the limits prejudice and segregation have placed on his dreams and success throughout his life. The growing personal strife between Gladys and Ossian also points to the small, ongoing, and individual costs systemic racism extracts from its victims.
The NAACP’s Washington, D.C. segregation case finally reaches the Supreme Court late in 1925, after the Sweet trial ends. Although the NAACP’s venerable lawyers put forth their best case, their presentation lacks vigor. Their claim—that the government can’t legislate individual homeowners’ decisions to add restrictive covenants to their deeds, but it can refuse to honor them, thus legally defanging them—is hardly straightforward. With little expectation of success, the NAACP must wait to see what the Supreme Court decides.
The Supreme Court case demonstrates the uphill battle the NAACP and other civil rights advocates face in their progress towards ending housing segregation. The complex, detailed issues resist easy explanation to the average person. This is why the Sweet trial is such a blessing to the NAACP—it has defendants who generate public sympathy and its grounds (the right to self-defense) are clear cut.
Ossian and Gladys wait, too; Robert Toms has another big case to try, and the court’s packed schedule pushes the retrials into the spring of 1926. Without a doubt, the first trial has greatly enhanced Ossian’s social standing. Patients flood his practice and NAACP officers like White treat him deferentially. Concerns do pop up: Gladys and Iva spend much of the winter sick with racking coughs, and the local defense team—Cecil Rowlette, Julian Perry, and Charles Mahoney—express frustration with Hays’s and Darrow’s defense. They think it would be safer to defend all 11 together rather than separately. But Ossian doesn’t argue when White tries to purge the Black lawyers from the team or when Robert Toms announces his plan to retry the men separately, starting with Henry. Jury selection will begin on April 1, 1926.
The costs of the shooting and the subsequent trial fall unequally across the defendants: Ossian’s reputation rises, but Gladys and Iva suffer an alarming illness that foreshadows troubles yet to come. And another round of tension between the local defense team and the NAACP reminds everyone—including readers—that what’s best for the defendants may or may not be what’s best for the larger cause of civil rights and protecting housing equity.
Over the months between the end of the first trial and the beginning of the second, Darrow reverts to his normal life of public appearances. His uncharacteristic optimism about the outcome of the second trial may come from the shifting political tides in Detroit, which begin to change when mayor John Smith is inaugurated on the first of the year. Smith appoints a blue-ribbon commission to study race relations in the city, headed by Reinhold Niebuhr, who packs the committee with progressives and Sweet supporters, including Edward Carter. And a scandal has imploded the Detroit Klan, greatly reducing its power.
The trial has already brought about some positive change in Detroit society, as the mayor orders a systematic review of the city’s race relations. In combination with the end of the Detroit Klan’s political ascendancy, it seems that the city is poised to address some of its pervasive racism and segregation. The promise of progress towards civil rights encourages Darrow, since it dovetails nicely with his general modernist crusade.
In early March, Arthur Garfield Hays becomes involved in a high-profile case that prevents him from rejoining the defense. Darrow insists that Thomas Chawke replace Hays. This horrifies White, who earlier judged Chawke an inappropriate representative for such a high-profile trial associated with the NAACP thanks to his mob ties and no-holds-barred courtroom style. After a few days of negotiation, Chawke officially joins the defense team.
When Hays leaves the defense team, this creates yet another point of conflict between what will best serve the NAACP’s broader campaign for civil rights and what will best serve the defendants in the Sweet trials. This shows once again that fighting for progress entails both social and sometimes personal upheaval and sacrifice.
Henry Sweet’s slightly delayed second trial begins on Monday April 19th. Prosecutor Toms has recently announced that he will drop the charges against the rest of the defendants if the jury finds Henry not guilty. And he makes it clear that he intends to call the same witnesses and make the exact same case as in the first trial. When Darrow and Chawke examine potential jurors, their questions point inexorably towards the idea of prejudice; they turn jury selection into a covert opening statement on their central argument and excuse jurors unlikely to agree with them. Over the course of the week, they examine 198 people before settling on the final jury.
The prosecution’s legal strategy hasn’t changed since the first trial, suggesting their ongoing faith in Detroiters’ acquiescence to housing segregation and desire to keep the color line intact. The defense, however, while still crafting a narrative of self-defense, seizes on the broader issues and from the first day works to implicate social and legal prejudice for creating the circumstances that led to the shooting.
Opening arguments begin on the Monday morning of the next week. Toms’s opening statement outlines his plan to build up a circumstantial case against Henry. If Toms expects Darrow to put off his opening statement until after the prosecution rests, as he did in the first trial, he is disappointed. Instead, Darrow stands up and coolly tells the jury that Henry likely fired the fatal shot. But, he says, the real villains are the average people who threatened the Sweets’ safety.
In the first trial, the defense attempted to show the weaknesses in the prosecution’s case. Now, in a masterful manipulation of courtroom drama, they take away the prosecution’s momentum by basically admitting Henry’s “guilt” in their opening statement. But this allows them to build their bigger case that systemic prejudice created conditions that threatened Ossian and his friends’ safety and livelihoods, justifying their acts of self-defense.
For a week and a half, Toms carefully builds his case with each witness, only to have Chawke and Darrow dismantle it through intense, sometimes combative cross-examination. When they can’t expose the lies, they expose the liar. One example is Inspector Schuknecht, who casually takes the witness stand, confident in the authority that proximity to the city’s elite provides him. Darrow presses Schuknecht to explain why he closed adjacent streets to traffic if there wasn’t a crowd and why, if the shooting was unprovoked, he entered the Sweets’ house without assuming a defensive posture. Each question reveals the inconsistencies in the Inspector’s story.
Toms keeps his strategy from the first trial, meaning that he relies on very carefully edited witness statements. This allows Chawke and Darrow not only to expose the lies and obfuscations in the prosecution’s narrative, but to begin to build up their own case implicating systemic prejudice. Systemic prejudice accounts for the mob’s violent actions and the police’s willful blindness to the threat the mob posed.
Other neighborhood residents provide even more damning testimony under cross-examination, placing more and more people on the streets and connecting the crowd’s arrival to a desire to roust the Black family from the area. By their questions and their significant looks to the jury box, Chawke and Darrow slowly transform neighborhood witnesses into “idiots” and “slope-browed simpletons.” And they press each witness on the nature and objectives of the Waterworks Park Improvement Association. Although witnesses try to claim their aim was just to “protect [their] property,” the defense gets some to admit that the undesirable characters who necessitated protection were “colored people” like “Negroes” and “Eye-talians.” Chawke and Darrow also get witnesses to describe not just the massive midsummer rally the Waterworks Association held at the school but the crowd’s enthusiastic response to its featured speaker, a member of the Tireman Association who directly advocated violence.
In their cross-examinations, Chawke and Darrow get witnesses to admit their prejudices not just against Black people but against other immigrant groups they consider undesirable, such as Italians. This confirms the alarms the NAACP has been trying to raise about the dangerous expansion of housing segregation. And it shows how pervasive prejudice is in American society and how deeply rooted it is in the unwritten social customs that enforce color lines despite ostensible equality for all American citizens. The cooperation and strategy-sharing between neighborhood associations clearly reveals the social forces upholding segregation.
By the time Toms rests his case on May 4, the defense has already shown that prejudice has a home on the “cramped, crabbed houses [lining] Garland Avenue.” Witnesses from the first trial, like Edna Butler, Serena Rochelle, and Philip Adler again confirm the size and frenzy of the crowd the night before the shooting. New witnesses like Thomas Chawke’s German cleaning lady (who happens to live in the neighborhood) also corroborate reports of the crowd. Even Ossian returns to the stand, although this time his less-carefully guarded testimony almost allows Toms to catch him in a lie.
The defense’s witnesses contribute to two narratives. The first pokes holes in the prosecution’s story that there was no mob and the gathered onlookers were not threatening violence. The other focuses on the systemic prejudices that enforce the color line, make white residents feel entitled to expel Black homeowners from their neighborhoods, and contribute to the pervasive atmosphere of fear and danger in which Black Americans live.
Closing arguments begin with a bitter screed from Assistant Prosecutor Lester Moll, who dismisses Ossian as “quasi-intelligent” and Rochelle and Butler as “so-called artists.” He excoriates Chawke and Darrow for their unwillingness to confront the specter of poor Leon Breiner bleeding out on the Doves’ front lawn and their preference to carry the jury on a pointless and distracting journey through “the ages of history” and Ossian’s life. In rebuttal, Chawke points out the role of prejudice on the night of the shooting and Moll’s attempt to awaken it in the jurors. He taps into Detroit’s recent racial and political conflicts much more directly than Darrow and Hays dared in the first trial. Thus, he reminds Detroiters who, like the Irish American Chawke himself, don’t fit nativist racial ideals, of their own self-interest in the case. Instead, he pleads for a vision of American equality represented by John Smith’s victory.
The prosecution’s case not only willfully ignores the systematic prejudice and injustices, but Moll’s closing argument contributes to them when he insults and belittles the defense’s Black witnesses. In contrast, Chawke points directly to the systematic prejudices that divide 1920s Detroit. Although he himself is white, as an Irish American Catholic, he belongs to ethnic and religious minorities that have also experienced discrimination and disenfranchisement at the hands of the native-born, white, Protestant elite classes of American society. He sees the national implications of this case and pleads for the jury to choose progress towards civil rights and true equality for all American citizens.
Hundreds of people pack the courtroom on the following day to hear Darrow’s closing argument, which is a brilliant “jeremiad for the modern age.” He begins by reminding the jurors that they are prejudiced, just like he is. Prejudice is part of the human condition. But he urges the jurors to fight this instinct as they consider the story of Henry, a “good [college] boy” and Ossian, a man who started with nothing and made himself successful in a classic iteration of the American Dream. He holds the Sweets’ achievements and class against the working-class residents of Garland Avenue who believe that “Negroes and the Eye-talians” don’t count as Americans, even though the continent was discovered by an Italian man.
Like Chawke, Darrow focuses his closing arguments squarely on the issue of prejudice. A “jeremiad” is a prolonged complaint, usually about a social injustice, and Darrow’s deftly points towards the poison of prejudice at the heart of American society, where it resides even within people who consider themselves progressives. He holds up the Sweets yet again as exemplary American Dream achievers while also demonstrating the limits prejudice and segregation place on their success.
Above all, Darrow takes aim at the communal nature of the violence and oppression that the Sweets suffered. A crowd of hundreds, he points out, gathered at a school funded with public money, to listen to a speaker advocate violating the constitution to protect their unearned sense of superiority. On the night of September 8, they gathered “with the backing of the law” and allowed children to throw stones at the house. Then, although the Sweets’ bravery put a stop to the crowd’s violence, a coordinated campaign of lies organized by the prosecution extended its malice from the street into the courtroom. The root cause of it all, Darrow claims, is the prejudice at the heart of the human condition which has condemned men to die at the stake and which allowed the “horrors of slavery.” Against this prejudice, the white race owes Black men and women a debt that can never be repaid, though they should try.
Darrow’s closing arguments refuse to let broader society off the hook for allowing violence against Black people. He shows social customs and legal policies work hand in hand to empower segregationist ideas. He explains how the law often ignores the acts of white vigilantes and mobs, giving them a sense of impunity. And he shows how this feeling of impunity dovetails with abuses in the legal system, including the prosecution’s heavily manipulated and edited case. And finally, he ties all of this to American chattel slavery, even going so far as to suggest that true progress requires paying reparations for the harms white society caused to Black Americans.
Extending his hands toward the jury box, Darrow declares that humans will not be civilized until they love each other regardless of “color or creed.” Although the country’s constitution gives Black Americans legal equality, too many of their fellow citizens have refused to recognize this. For the sake of the progress of humanity, he begs them to return a verdict of not guilty. Then, after nearly six hours of sermonizing, he quietly returns to his seat.
Darrow paints a picture of a future in which all people have the same basic civil rights. It’s currently a dream because, although the constitution allows Black citizens the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else, in practice, they don’t enjoy the same rights as their white counterparts. Progress requires a rebalancing of the scales towards true justice and equality, and while the jury has limited power to bring this about, they can take a small step with a fair verdict for Henry.
The following day, Robert Toms makes a closing argument nearly as long as Darrow’s, which tries yet again to pull the jury’s focus back to Leon Breiner, a “poor, insignificant American […] one man in thousands” who nevertheless had the right to live. Finally, on the morning of Thursday, May 13, 1926, Frank Murphy gives the jury its instructions. After the delay and acrimony of the first jury’s deliberations, no one expects a swift verdict; Darrow and his wife, Thomas Chawke, Josephine Gomon, and their entourage leaves the courthouse for a long, alcohol-fueled afternoon at a local speakeasy. But within three hours, the court reconvenes, and the jury’s foreman returns a verdict of not guilty.
In a trial that both sides have framed as a referendum on social issues, Prosecutor Toms tries to co-opt the defense’s case for equal rights by focusing his closing argument on Leon Breiner’s rights as a working class American to live and work in peace. His emotional delivery still doesn’t square with the incongruously serious charge of premeditated murder, however, and in the end, Darrow and Chawke have made a more convincing argument for the pervasive influence of prejudice in American society. The defense has carried the cause of civil rights one step closer to equality, even though much work remains.