2 minute read

Moore et al v. Dempsey Appeal: 1923

Studded Straps And Strangling Drugs, "the Whole Proceeding Is A Mask'

Appellants: Frank Moore and 11 others
Defendant: E.H. Dempsey
Appellants Claim: That a petition for writ of habeas corpus was wrongfully dismissed
Chief Defense Lawyers: Elbert Godwin
Chief Lawyer for Appellant: U.S. Bratton, Scipio A. Jones, and Moorefield Storey
Justices: Louis D. Brandeis, Pierce Butler, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Joseph McKenna, James C. McReynolds, Edward T. Sanford, George Sutherland, William Howard Taft, and Willis Van Devanter
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: February 19, 1923
Decision: Order dismissing writ reversed; case remanded to district court

SIGNIFICANCE: Twelve African-Americans who had been condemned to death and had nearly been lynched ultimately were freed from imprisonment because the U.S. Supreme Court, led by fabled Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, found that a threatening mob inflamed by racial prejudice had made the trial, which lasted only 45 minutes, "absolutely void."

On the evening of September 30, 1919, a number of black people gathered in their church in the Hoop Spur neighborhood of the village of Elaine, Arkansas, near the Mississippi River and a few miles south of Helena. Their purpose in meeting was to organize so they could get legal counsel to protect them against extortion that they said was practiced on them by the landowners under the sharecropping system then prevalent in Arkansas. The meeting was attacked and fired upon by a group of white landowners. In the melee that followed, a white man was killed.

The report of the killing stirred greater excitement. Many black men were hunted down. Some were shot. By the morning of October 1, a second white man, named Clinton Lee, had been killed. Twelve black men were arrested for his murder.

A "Committee of Seven" white men was chosen to direct the operation of putting down the "insurrection" and help discover who was guilty in the two killings. Local newspapers published inflammatory articles daily. On October 7, one member of the Committee of Seven made a public statement that the trouble was "a deliberately planned insurrection of the negroes against the whites, directed by an organization known as the 'Progressive Farmers' and 'Household Union of America' established for the purpose of banding negroes together for the killing of white people."

A mob marched to the jail, ready to lynch the 12 prisoners. National Guard troops held them off. Members of the committee promised then that, if the mob would refrain, those found guilty would be executed under the law.

A grand jury was organized. It included a member of the committee and several men who had been in the posse organized to fight the blacks. It heard testimony against the defendants from two black witnesses.

In a trial that lasted 45 minutes on November 3, the courthouse neighborhood was thronged with a threatening crowd. The 12 prisoners were informed that a lawyer had been appointed their counsel. He held no preliminary consultations with them. He challenged no member of the jury, which was all white (blacks were systematically excluded from all juries). He demanded no delay or change of venue. He did not ask for separate trials for each of the accused. Although witnesses for the defense could have been produced, he called none. He did not put the defendants on the witness stand.

The jury took less than five minutes to bring in a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. The sentence was death for all.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940