United States v. Shipp
February 7, 2012 9:52 PM   Subscribe

The Supreme Court of the United States has held only one criminal trial in its history: United States v. Shipp.

The Famous Trials project has an excellent page on United States v. Shipp, including primary sources, trial transcript excerpts, and contemporary newspaper accounts.

The case produced two opinions: United States v. Shipp, 203 U.S. 563 (1906) (addressing preliminary matters and holding that the trial could proceed) and United States v. Shipp, 214 U.S. 386 (1909) (delivering the result in the trial).

It's not addressed clearly in the case, so in case you're wondering: the reason that the Supreme Court had original jurisdiction in the case despite the limits of Article Three, Section 2 is that the Court had appellate jurisdiction over Ed Johnson's habeas corpus case, and thus had the power to issue necessary orders in aid of its jurisdiction, including holding state officials—such as Shipp—in contempt. Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908); Act of Sept. 24, 1789, ch. 20, § 14 (the Judiciary Act of 1789).
posted by jedicus (30 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Good grief the timeline in that first link is riveting. If there's not a movie made of that already, there should be.

And when I got to the end of it and found [SPOILER] that the damn sheriff was sentenced only to a couple of months and returned home to a hero's welcome, and the rat bastard judge went on to be re-elected for 18 years, I just wanted to spit.

Awesome history, thanks jedicus!
posted by darkstar at 10:23 PM on February 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Cool story, thanks. /nonlawyer law geek
posted by msalt at 10:38 PM on February 7, 2012

Amazing and heartbreaking. Thanks for that.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 10:48 PM on February 7, 2012

God, so weird. It looks like, by that logic of Original Jurisdiction, SCOTUS could have held a criminal trial in Hamdan as well, had they so decided to (though in modern times that would have been ludicrous.)

I don't know if I'm MeFi's only Lawyer/Screenwriter, but I'm indeed getting very interested in making a script about this.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:50 PM on February 7, 2012 [9 favorites]

The movie title has to be: "Contempt"
posted by empath at 10:56 PM on February 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

What an amazing and terrifying story. Johnson and his family had incredible courage, as did everyone in Chattanooga's black community who protested the lynching with a general strike.

Thanks for those links, jedicus. I had been aware of the case as a historical curiosity, but the material you shared brings the real story to life.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:17 PM on February 7, 2012

Navelgazer, I would see that movie a hundred times. Especially if Samuel L. Jackson was playing Skinbone Johnson (father of the man who was railroaded and lynched).
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:20 PM on February 7, 2012

The timeline is indeed riveting.

I will never, ever, ever understand how that sort of racism comes to be, though. Did no one care to find the actual rapist? Didn't it matter to ANY of them that the guilty party was at large?
posted by kavasa at 11:34 PM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah. Holmes is a hero of mine (aside from the eugenics opinion, obviously) and I'm getting very, very interested in dramatizing this now. (gimme a few weeks to get past the NY bar exam, and I'll be on my favored projects.)
posted by Navelgazer at 11:36 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Did no one care to find the actual rapist? Didn't it matter to ANY of them that the guilty party was at large?"

Then, as now, the important thing is that somebody - anybody - will pay. The Justice system pays lip service to the ideals of justice, but it's fundamental purpose is to run the sausage factory. Like a newspaper - the purpose of a newspaper is to sell advertising. The journalism in it only has to be good enough to achieve that purpose.

People are interested that "something is being done". They are less interested in that the right thing is being done, and they damn sure aren't interested in knowing they they are doing the wrong thing.
posted by Xoebe at 11:50 PM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

"The Prophet exists to sell itself, you sill girl!"
posted by Navelgazer at 12:13 AM on February 8, 2012

Reminds you how for most of US history, when people were referring to 'state rights', they were usually referring to being allowed to do something heinous like this with impunity.
posted by switchsonic at 12:19 AM on February 8, 2012 [15 favorites]

Also aggregation of the other. One black man did the crime (or at least, this is easier to believe); one black man is punished. It doesn't particularly matter to those who think this way if it's the same one.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:01 AM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Then, as now, the important thing is that somebody - anybody - will pay. "

Well, that and the fact that most people trust authority and assume that someone arrested for a crime is guilty. For them, the question was never, and is never, that the person is getting a fair trial. It's that various people attempt to take advantage of an opportunity to pursue a political agenda in opposition of actual justice being done (i.e., prison or execution of the accused).

If you're sure that virtually everyone ever arrested and tried for a crime is guilty, all these "technicalities" make a mockery of justice.

And, of course, never—in 1906 or 2012—is it the case that the guilt of the accused is more certain than when the accused is a black man.

These days, we don't lynch anyone. We just have trials pretty much as "fair" as that Ed Johnson received, declare them guilty, and then lock them up in overcrowded prisons for twenty years. Or, if it's a black man in Texas, kill them via the majesty of a state criminal justice system working as intended.

Things are so much better now.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:26 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I will never, ever, ever understand how that sort of racism comes to be, though.

When you don't have fossil fuels and machines to do the work along with "good books" that state its OK to make slaves of neighbouring countries in a culture where said "good book" is "truth" along with the generic nature of humans to be lazy and want others to do stuff and a generic human sorting algorithm of power/status which has you in a better position if others are below you - that sort of racism is what happens.

And if you grew up without machines/fossil fuels they are not something you accept in the same way as having grown up with 'em.

Human nature + human nurture - a long hard uphill fight that not everyone is going to win.

we don't lynch anyone.

And when someone is found dead via a rope you get a reaction about how said death is racist.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:17 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

For a minute there, I felt quite proud of the Supreme Court for taking a stand in this matter, until they got to the part where the SC sentences the defendants to 90 days, at most. And they didn't even serve the whole term. Are you fucking kidding me?
posted by malapropist at 5:19 AM on February 8, 2012

Are you fucking kidding me?

How much time did the judges get for the bribery-for-private-juvie-jail scandal VS the amount of time they gave ALONG with the 'on paper' status of the kids - where such 'on paper' status will now keep them out of various classes of jobs?
posted by rough ashlar at 5:35 AM on February 8, 2012

well, malapropist, in the SC's defense, the trial was merely for contempt, not for murder.
posted by rebent at 5:35 AM on February 8, 2012

But as far as contempt cases go, "We told you to keep him safe, and you hung him over a bridge and shot him 50 times" seems to be pretty bad.

I wonder what became of the monument. Is it somewhere people can still visit and, ideally, urinate on it?
posted by 1adam12 at 6:43 AM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

For the record, I do not support urinating on people's graves, but maybe there is a classier way to show your disapproval.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:33 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and on the positive side, there is an Ed Johnson Memorial Scholarship fund.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:39 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Apparently this has been dramatized at one point in the form of a play called "Dead Innocent"
posted by MangyCarface at 8:35 AM on February 8, 2012

Not much of a title.
Navelgazer, here's a thought for your screenplay: Ed Johnson should be played by as famous and charismatic a star as possible, and be set up as the film's protagonist. The viewers should be led to believe that justice would prevail, with foreshadowing that all should turn out well for the innocent young man... Then the mob should descend on him suddenly, and his death in the middle of the film should be as unexpected as Janet Leigh's fate in Psycho - thereby setting the stage for the legal drama to follow.
posted by Silky Slim at 10:53 AM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

From the image gallery: "W.G.M. Thomas was asked to join in Johnson’s defense even though he had never tried a criminal case. When he agreed, his mother refused to cook dinner for him. "

I think it's crucial to note that small actions like this form the base of a pyramid of hate with a noose at its peak.
posted by TreeRooster at 12:36 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, once I finished my studying today I was going back through the timelines (there are a few online) and trying to figure out how this story would work structurally. As Silky Slim points out, it's definitely a gearshift movie of sorts (not from one drama to another, but definitely shifting the major characters at some point.) In a ghoulish sort of way, the story is almost perfect as is structurally - up to that point. Things are happening very quickly, every victory Parden and Styles are getting is after loads of bigoted setbacks, and their biggest victory - Parden coming back home to his traumatized wife and Styles waiting for him with the telegram granting cert) comes directly before and in fact precipitates the story's greatest tragedy in only a day's time.

But then what? After Johnson's lynching, Parden and Styles aren't a part of the story anymore, really. It's all about Harden, and Fuller and Holmes, and Shipp and A.G. Moody. Act III continues without people we haven't been following this whole time, and moreover, it's suddenly a bunch of white dudes. Also, things move from taking place from day to day to taking place over 18 months to two years.

So I need to figure some things out, but I really, really want to write this now.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:12 PM on February 8, 2012

This is to say nothing of the research I'm going to need to go into concerning the multitudes of cultural vernaculars at play here if I'm going to do this justice. Oh god, this is exciting and a little frightening.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:25 PM on February 8, 2012

Oh, and fun weird fact upon research, Chief Justice Fuller, who demanded to read the sentence himself after a career of rarely doing so, was the presidential campaign manager for Stephen Douglas, meaning, you know, that he was the chief strategist against Lincoln. Later, he gave the keynote speech at the DNC in 1876, for Thomas Hendricks, who lost to Grover Cleveland. Cleveland then tried to appoint Fuller to one position after another while Fuller declined, until finally offering him Chief Justice.

Weird world. Every story even tangentially related to this is fascinating.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:48 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Navelgazer: _Law and Order_ used to do that kind of shift in characters and story focus all the time. I think you could do very well following the events and letting the shifting take place. People will follow along.
posted by wobh at 7:21 PM on February 8, 2012

Let the record state that any half-competent film version of this story is Oscar-bait.

What an amazing, tragic story.
posted by sixacross at 7:46 PM on February 8, 2012

Whenever I read about lynch mobs from that era, I always picture 20-30 people. Not this many. Frightening, but interesting story -- thanks so much for this post, jedicus!
posted by bluefly at 7:46 AM on February 9, 2012

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