The faces in the jury box change as Clarence Darrow interviews potential jurors on the afternoon of October 30th and the following morning. Lawyers can ask the judge to remove a juror “for cause”—when they demonstrate potential biases—or with a peremptory dismissal that doesn’t need to be justified. Because all 11 defendants are on trial together, Darrow has 330 peremptory dismissals at his disposal, and Frank Murphy’s determination to be fair means that he’s unlikely to challenge any of the defense’s peremptory dismissals.
As the book describes the jury selection process, it’s notable that Darrow has so many potential dismissals and that he uses so much time in carefully selecting the jury. Since public opinion—at least among the white, native-born people who make up the elite and working classes of the city—already opposes the defendants, Darrow must work extra hard to ensure they get a fair trial and a chance at justice.
Darrow once told a national newspaper who he does and doesn’t like to see on a jury. The wealthy and powerful can’t sympathize with lower classes, so they’re out; prohibitionists and certain kinds of Christians are too sullen and judgmental; a lawyer should instantly dismiss any woman. Because he considers them to be “emotional, kindly, sympathetic,” and poetic, Darrow favors Irishmen as jurors, followed by men of German and English descent. Especially in Detroit, where he will put “society’s bigotry and brutality on trial,” Darrow wants a jury of men who recognize the often-bitter realities of life outside the white, Protestant, nativist ruling class.
In a rapidly changing society, Darrow prefers people in tune with the march of social progress. He betrays his own racial and cultural stereotyping when he claims to prefer Irishmen on his juries. But in general, his selection process reveals a concern with finding people who understand the difficulties of achieving the American Dream—that is, working men. And, as an avowed disciple of social and economic progress, he prefers jurors who are less tied to the morals and ideologies of the past, such as excessive religiosity.
The trial beings against the backdrop of the fierce mayoral campaign, which John Smith has cast as a contest between not himself and his opponent but between the Klan’s brutality and hatred and the values of the working classes, civil rights activists, and progressives. The elite of Black Bottom rally behind Smith, as do Reinhold Niebuhr and leaders of the city’s Jewish temples. Election day sees massive turnout, and Smith carries the day by a margin of 31,000 votes. When a triumphant crowd of Smith supporters passes the Klan’s headquarters, throwing rocks and breaking some windows, the terrified Klansmen huddle inside waiting for the police to quell the minor violence.
Despite his earlier attempts to blame the Black community for inciting violence by exercising their rights, John Smith jumps on the publicity of the trial to cast himself as the champion of anyone outside of the white, Protestant, native-born class that favors the Klan’s intimidation and violent tactics. And while Smith wins the election in an apparent defeat of Klan ideology, the possibility of violence and intimidation remains, even though the tables are turned.
Jury selection drags into the first week of November, as Darrow and Toms jockey their preferred jurors into position. But by Wednesday afternoon, the jury’s composition satisfies both sides. The all-white, all-male, all working-class group nevertheless represents a fair cross-section of Detroit demographics: it includes single and family men, immigrants and native-born citizens, homeowners and boarders. The trial itself begins on the morning of Thursday, November 5, 1925.
Despite the careful attention the defense paid to juror selection to ensure that the defendants receive a fair trial, the fact that the jury consists entirely of white men shows the slow pace of progress towards true equality and integration in American society. Still, it does capture the energy of a city in the midst of dynamic growth and demographic changes.
Prosecutor Robert Toms feels confident in his case, despite squaring off against the famous Darrow. He plans to call over 60 witnesses from the police force and neighborhood who will testify that the crowd presented no danger to the Sweets or their house. He carefully selected these witnesses, with the input of the Waterworks Association, to include only those who could be trusted “to say just the right thing.” He also plans to keep his questioning strictly professional, avoiding any theatrics that might provoke Darrow to attack him or his legal approach. When Arthur Garfield Hays demands that the prosecution begin by presenting its bill of particulars—forcing it to precisely define the charges it plans to prove—Toms states that the state plans to prove that the defendants “premeditatedly and with malice aforethought” planned and prepared a fatal attack.
The prosecution has a weak case, since the shooting occurred in the context of a large crowd menacing the house on Garland Avenue and its occupants. To win, it must present a version of events so carefully curated as to be untruthful. Thus, Toms’s large witness list attempts to paper over the weaknesses and half-truths of the prosecution’s story of the shooting. It seems that Toms wants to use the image of professionalism to convince people that his case serves true justice, despite his underhanded tactics.
Then Prosecutor Toms calls his first witness, Norton Schuknecht. Schuknecht cuts a fine figure in his dress uniform. He provides curt answers to Toms’s questions, stating that he and his men saw no evidence of a crowd or threat prior to the shooting. And he emphasizes the incongruity between the copious arsenal and the spare furnishings in the house. Over the next few days, other officers corroborate Schuknecht’s account, claiming that the Sweets had police protection from the moment of their arrival. They reiterate the image of the sparsely furnished rooms. The officer who watched Leon Breiner bleed to death on the Doves’ front lawn, with a pipe in his mouth but no weapons in his hands, provides the most dramatic testimony.
On the witness stand, Inspector Schuknecht adds to Toms’s image of professionalism and utmost respect for the law. But he uses the respect garnered by his position and dress uniform to deliberately put forward falsehoods and exaggerations about the Sweets’ actions on the night of the shooting. His theory, suggesting that the Sweets deliberately tried to provoke the peaceful white residents of Garland Avenue into violence, plays on nativist resentments of immigrants and anti-Black prejudice.
The neighbors confirm the police story from many vantage points around the neighborhood. For the most part, they state that there was no “crowd” and that if a few people gathered in the street, their actions were peaceful. A few witnesses stumble, betraying incomplete memories of events, overstating the number of people in front of the house, and recalling hearing rocks shatter windows in the house prior to shooting. But overall, they confirm the state’s official case: five or 10 people may have gathered around the house just before the shooting, but there was no hint of trouble “until the Negroes started shooting.”
Each witness who stumbles or strays slightly from the prosecution’s preferred story points a damning finger at a blatant attempt to manipulate the justice system to the disadvantage of the Black defendants. This, in turn, offers a harsh reminder of the prejudicial treatment suffered by Black residents of Detroit and Black American citizens in the pre- civil rights era. The prosecution tries to build its case on white people’s fears, based on false stereotypes that Black people are violent and prone to criminality.
Hays interrupts the momentum of Toms’ presentation with technical legal objections, while Darrow cross-examines his witnesses. Darrow focuses his efforts on witnesses likely to undermine the prosecution’s case. In cross-examining Schuknecht, Darrow’s questions reveal at best incompetence—the inspector didn’t investigate the Waterworks Association’s intentions, and he didn’t ask bystanders why they’d come to the house—and at worst clear evidence of deception, as when Schuknecht admits to seeing glass inside the house that suggests rocks thrown from outside. Darrow gets Ray Dove and others to admit to prejudicial preference for an all-white neighborhood. But he struggles to get many witnesses to discuss the Waterworks Association or the threats it made against the Sweets or to speak truthfully to the night’s events.
The weaknesses in the prosecution’s case—which charges the defendants with premeditated murder when they clearly acted in self-defense—lie close to the surface, allowing Hays and Darrow to easily exploit them. Still, even when admitting to details that undermine his story, Schuknecht staunchly remains on the white, nativist side of the color line by refusing to admit the meaning of the shattered glass inside the Sweets’ house (which is clear evidence the violent crowd threw rocks and broke windows). Still, while witnesses like Dove admit to personal prejudice, no one willingly discusses the Association, with its mix of legal and harassment strategies.
Those witnesses who do stumble, however, critically threaten the prosecution’s case. One admits to modifying his words to please Toms; another describes the Waterworks Association’s midsummer rally at the schoolhouse, with its crowd of 600 people or more; two teenage boys describe seeing neighborhood boys throwing rocks at the house before the shooting.
The defendants’ chance at true justice has always been slim, given the racial and political tensions in Detroit. Witnesses who admit to the prosecution coaching their testimony show just how difficult it will be for the Sweets to win in a system that doesn’t recognize them as truly equal.
During the initial stages of the trial, Walter White continues the NAACP’s fundraising efforts at a frantic pace. And he sits in the courtroom most days, networking with reporters and getting the NAACP’s line into their papers. In the evenings, White attends Darrow’s lectures at venues around the city. Reinhold Niebuhr also listens to Darrow; although the priest notes Darrow’s bitterness about humanity, he appreciates the lawyer’s portrait of the “injustices and immoralities” of industrial culture. Still, sometimes Darrow behaves in off-putting ways, such as his obvious flirtation with a married political activist, Josephine Gomon, who joins his Motor City entourage. And, in a presentation at the Black Bottom Y, Darrow tells the Black audience that slavery was the price their people paid for access to civilization; predicts that prejudice will be hard to overcome; and suggests that, while Black people need places to live, their presence still depreciates property values.
In the evening hours during the case, Darrow continues his work as a modernist evangelist by offering lectures around the city. His message resonates with progressive politicians and activists around the city, who are working hard to bring about a more just and equal society. Still, Darrow’s ideas betray the imprint of systemic prejudice and racism in society. When he tries to redeem slavery as Black Americans’ ticket to civilization, he both devalues the African civilizations from which enslaved people were stolen and vastly underrates the trauma and brutality of the American chattel slavery system and ongoing Jim Crow-style segregation and violence.
On the morning of November 14th, Toms rests the prosecution’s case. White believes that the Darrow has already shattered the state’s case in cross-examination and the defense must replace that with its own version of events. They can offer a narrative of racial injustice, provide positive character witnesses for the defendants, or even argue that the fatal shots came from a policeman’s gun instead of the house. Instead, Hays opens with a motion to dismiss the charges. White doesn’t like this idea, feeling that a verdict of acquittal will be far more dramatic than a dismissal. But it doesn’t matter since Judge Murphy rejects the motion. No one knows why, although many have theories: his political career would be imperiled if he didn’t fully try such a high-profile case; he shares White’s assessment about the superiority of acquittal; or there isn’t enough evidence to dismiss.
Hays’ motion for dismissal serves the best interests of the clients, but not the fundraising interests of the NAACP, nor the national fight for housing equity. The illustrates how progress, in this case towards civil rights and housing protections for Black Americans, isn’t smooth or even, and often faces setbacks. In this case, it faces a setback in Murphy’s refusal to reject the motion. Without a statement of his rationale, the book offers three possible motives for Murphy’s decision. It's possible he was afraid of alienating Detroit voters who liked a strong color line and thus that he opted to protect segregationist tendencies. But it's also possible he wanted to hold out for a greater victory, which an acquittal would be.
In his opening argument, Hays focuses on Ossian, presenting his rise from poverty through years of education and hard work as a sterling example of the American Dream in action. And he places the weight of Black America—from the race riots in East St. Louis and Tulsa to lynchings in the South, to the expulsions of Black families from white neighborhood in Detroit all through the summer of 1925—squarely on Ossian’s shoulders. The defense’s witnesses corroborate this account: among others, John Fletcher, Vollington Bristol, and Edward Carter speak to the volatile situation in Detroit; Serena Rochelle and Edna Butler describe their fearful night trapped in the house by a mob; and Philip Adler, the white Detroit News reporter who happened upon the scene, describes a crowd of several hundred people.
With the charges undismissed and the trial proceeding, Hays and Darrow have the opportunity not just to poke holes in the prosecution’s flimsy argument but to offer their own narrative of self-defense. In doing so, they assert that Black citizens have the same rights and protections as white citizens, at least in theory. In practice, however, as the opening statement lays out, Black citizens face extreme levels of discrimination and violence both in Detroit and across the country. This includes the mob of hundreds of angry white people surrounding the house on Garland Avenue on the night of the shooting. Against this overwhelming level of prejudice, Ossian’s achievement of the American Dream seems all the more impressive and makes him look increasingly sympathetic.
Ossian himself takes the stand on the afternoon of November 18. It’s a tremendous responsibility: the fate of housing equality in Detroit, if not the country, rests in part on his performance. But he agrees out of a sense of pride and responsibility. Ossian retells his life story, from the horror of Fred Rochelle’s lynching through his recent sojourn in Europe. When Toms objects that this line of questioning is irrelevant to the case, Darrow counters that justice here rests on properly understanding how “everything known to a race affects its actions.” And Ossian relates knowledge of crime after crime against Black men in America.
As a member of the talented tenth, Ossian feels a great personal responsibility to do what he can to improve the fate of Black Americans. This is true even when that requires him to do difficult or dangerous things, like buy a house in an all-white neighborhood, or take the stand in this high-stakes trial. On the stand, the defense paints a portrait of a person who’s achieved the American Dream, at least insofar as a Black person, under the constant threat of lynching and other violence, can.
Then Ossian’s testimony takes the jury and the crowded courtroom into the house on Garland Avenue the night of the shooting. He describes stones pelting the house and opening the front door for Henry and Davis only to see a seething, surging sea of humanity in the street. The mob on Garland Avenue, he says, is the same one that has hounded his people throughout their history, and he knew that his “back [was] against the wall.”
In Ossian’s pivotal testimony, the mob around the house takes on its true form—a large, angry mass of humanity, as opposed to the prosecution’s alleged five to 10 peaceful bystanders. And he shows the jurors—and readers—that this mob isn’t an anomaly. It’s connected to all the other angry mobs that have inflicted pain, torment, and death on Black Americans since they arrived in the country as enslaved people.
In the final four days of the trial, Ossian fends off Toms’ aggressive cross-examination. Hays fails to prevent Henry’s admission on the night of the shooting to firing a weapon from entering evidence. The defense calls Walter White as an expert witness on mob violence. The final witness steps down on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and closing statements begin the next day. Assistant Prosecutor Lester Moll reminds the jury of the facts the state set out to prove. Hays begins the defense’s closing arguments, offering a sharp attack of the prosecution’s case. But then Darrow steps into the spotlight with a closing argument that takes up the remainder of Tuesday afternoon and much of Wednesday morning.
In large part, the trial has become a referendum on the issue of maintaining the color line and protecting the purity of the white race or about the state of prejudice and segregation aimed at marginalizing Black citizens. Nevertheless, the jury only must decide the defendants’ guilt or innocence on the charge of premeditated murder, and the prosecution makes sure to keep attention on this smaller and more local question of justice in its cross-examination.
For hour after hour, Darrow “chat[s] with the jurors” about the timeless problems of race and prejudice, the deliberate lies and obfuscations of the state’s witnesses and the political conflict that roiled the city over the summer and fall. He turns the ordinary people of Garland Avenue into proxies for the Klan’s hatred and violence and compares their violence to the bloodthirstiness of Roman gladiatorial combat. He reproaches the people of Garland Avenue for believing in the superiority of their whiteness despite (or because of) the Sweets’ superior wealth, education, and sophistication. He attacks the long, uniquely American history of racism and slavery and transforms Ossian into a hero of racial justice. He alleges that white supremacy is nothing more than an illusion propped up by artificial attempts to keep races separate.
Darrow’s style of law connects justice to the personal stories of his defendants; adopting a personal and intimate tone with the jury helps him to humanize the Sweets and their friends. But he also draws the jury’s attention to the essential injustice of the trial, which includes not just the prosecution’s witness tampering but the rampant segregation and prejudice that enforces the color line. The color line limits the Sweets’ access to the housing, respect, and security that their success at the American Dream in theory should have earned them.
But Darrow doesn’t follow his own arguments to their logical conclusion, stopping short of demanding that the jurors see segregation as “a social system built on a bold-faced lie.” As he concludes his closing argument, he hedges a little, all but admitting that the obvious answer—ending segregation—is still unimaginable, given entrenched American attitudes. Nevertheless, he presses for justice for his clients in the face of horrific, widespread social injustices like segregation. His final argument appeals more to the white man’s sense of fostering justice and morality than a belief that they should truly see the Black defendants as their equals.
The social customs and legal policies that led to the shooting on Garland Avenue—segregated neighborhoods, a tacit allowance of violence and intimidation against Black citizens in Detroit and around the country—demonstrate the systemic nature of prejudice and segregation in American society. But, either because he's unwilling to acknowledge this or because he fears it will alienate the jurors, Darrow doesn’t say outright that Black citizens don’t have the same rights as white citizens in practice, and that they need civil rights for true justice and equality to exist. While his participation in the trial and the national attention it draws to housing segregation mark a step towards achieving this equality, progress towards that goal remains slow and uneven thanks to entrenched beliefs and privileged groups’ unwillingness to tolerate the social upheaval change involves.
With the court’s Thanksgiving break looming, Toms keeps his closing argument brief, trying to pull the jury’s attention back to luckless victim Leon Breiner. Then, Frank Murphy instructs the jurors and sends them to their deliberations, which drag, loudly and acrimoniously, through the holiday. Around midnight on Thanksgiving, the foreman tells Murphy that the jury has deadlocked—they agree on the innocence of most of the defendants but have split seven to five on the question of whether to convict Ossian, Henry, and Leonard Morse. Murphy orders them to resume deliberations the following morning as Gladys—the only defendant not awaiting the verdict in jail—sobs on her mother’s shoulder. At 1:30pm on the Friday after Thanksgiving, however, Murphy regretfully dismisses the still-deadlocked jury and declares The People v. Sweet a mistrial.
To distract the jurors from the legal weaknesses in his own case and from the evidence for systemic racism and prejudice in Detroit and America, Prosecutor Toms tries to focus the jury’s attention on the mangled body of the shooting’s single victim, Leon Breiner. The fact that he must remind the jurors and the courtroom audience of Breiner’s existence points to how the trial has become a referendum on larger social issues (rather than just being about Ossian and his friends’ guilt or innocence). And while the jury won’t acquit all of the defendants, their refusal to condemn all 11 shows that Judge Murphy and the defense team’s careful work has ensured a more unbiased application of justice than the defendants initially expected.