|Author Mark Curriden is both a journalist and a lawyer|
It's an interesting, if sad, story. A beautiful, 21 year-old woman was raped on her way home from work in Chattanooga in 1906. A Sheriff and Judge facing re-election needed to solve the case, and quickly. In 17 days, what the local press called a "Negro fiend" named Ed Johnson was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. A juror got up during the trial and said he wanted to kill Johnson himself.
What evidence exists showed that Johnson was innocent. He worked two jobs, and at the time of the rape, was working at a job several miles away from the scene of the rape. The victim could not even be sure her assailant was black.
While Johnson waited to hang, something very odd happened. For the first time ever, a black attorney was permitted to present an argument to the Supreme Court. And for the first time ever, the Supreme Court flexed its muscle over state criminal prosecutions, ruling that a defendant has federal constitutional rights in a state criminal prosecution. The Court directed the local Sheriff to keep Johnson safe, but he essentially thumbed his nose at the High Court, and allowed a lynch mob to drag Johnson away and hang him.
Johnson's last words to the mob? "God bless you all. I am an innocent man." They strung him up on a bridge, but he was taking too long to die. So they pumped him full of bullets.
As you might imagine, the United States Supreme Court was less than pleased that its orders had been violated. They had the Sheriff and lynch mob leaders charged with contempt of court, but their lawyers scoffed that the federal court had no jurisdiction.
States' rights and all that.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., had a different view, and his is the one that counted. "This was murder by a mob, and was an offense against the State as well as the United States and this court ... and the United States has complete power to punish, whether the State does or does not."
The Sheriff and lynch mob members were convicted of contempt, did their time and returned home to a heroes' welcome.
Unfortunately, local government too often cowers before a lynch mob, whether it is a Chattanooga mob with guns or a fake preacher who wants to hang the County Executive, despite repeated court rulings against him.