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Brown v. Mississippi

A Travesty Of Justice

On 30 March 1934 Raymond Stewart, a white farmer from Mississippi, was murdered. His body was discovered at approximately 1:00 p.m. that same day. Law enforcement authorities thought they knew the perpetrator, and arrested a Mr. Ellington, a local man of African descent. They also detained Ed Brown and Henry Shields, two other African American men who would become petitioners in this case. Ellington was taken to the scene of the murder and asked to confess to the crime, but he professed his innocence. Upon hearing this, a group of white men who had gathered at the crime scene joined the police to encourage Ellington to confess. They threw a rope over a nearby tree limb, made a noose, seized Ellington, and hung him until his neck bore distinct rope marks that lasted for several days. After being let down Ellington still refused to confess, whereupon he was hung once again. When Ellington continued to maintain his innocence after his second hanging, he was savagely whipped by Deputy Sheriff Dial. Ellington still would not confess, and the mob allowed him to return home. Brown and Shields were taken to the county jail and detained overnight.

The following morning Dial and several white citizens returned to Ellington's home and arrested him. They then took him to the county jail after first making a detour through Alabama. While in Alabama, Dial and his colleagues whipped Ellington yet again, whereupon he agreed at last to confess to whatever his tormentors accused him.

On the night of 1 April 1934 deputy Dial and a number of white citizens returned to the county jail. Shields and Brown were forced to disrobe and lie over chairs. They were then beaten with a leather strap bearing metal buckles. During the beating deputy Dial made the men understand that, if they would confess involvement in Stewart's murder, the whipping would stop. Eventually both men confessed, and agreed to every detail of the scenario for the murder concocted by the local police and the mob.

Wasting no time, the authorities convened a grand jury comprising two sheriffs and eight white citizens to hear the "free and voluntary" confessions of Brown, Ellington, and Shields to the murder of Stewart. The suspects duly confessed. Although the accused still bore many visible marks of their ordeals and many of those present had knowledge of their treatment, three of the men watching this charade agreed to testify to the voluntary nature of the confessions in the upcoming trial.

On 4 April 1934 the grand jury indicted Brown, Ellington, and Shields for the murder of Stewart. The suspects were arraigned later in the day, but their guilty pleas were not accepted by the trial court. It was also determined at the arraignment that the suspects had not had access to legal counsel, which was duly appointed for them. Their trial was set for the following morning.

The trial lasted just two days, during which the prosecution offered no evidence of the guilt of the suspects other than their confessions. There was no attempt to disguise the manner in which those confessions were obtained. Deputy Dial even admitted participating in beating Ellington, and offered that the beating was "[n]ot too much for a negro; not as much as I would have done if it were left to me." On 6 April 1934, all three defendants found guilty of Stewart's murder and sentenced to death.

The petitioners then appealed their case to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which upheld their conviction and sentencing on the grounds that: "exemption from compulsory self-incrimination in the courts of the states is not secured by any part of the Federal Constitution" [quoting from Snyder v. Massachusetts]. Moreover, the Mississippi Supreme Court held that the petitioner's court-appointed counsel, by not moving to exclude the confessions from the trial, had simply made a legal error that could not be rectified. Two state supreme court justices dissented from this ruling, however, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on certiorari.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Brown v. Mississippi - Significance, True Confessions, A Travesty Of Justice, Due Process