The Taft Court (1921–30)

Criminal Justice and Procedure

In what decision did the Taft Court invalidate death sentences because of a mob-like atmosphere during a trial?

The Taft Court ruled 7–2 in Moore v. Dempsey (1923) that five African American men had the right to a new hearing in federal court on whether their constitutional rights were violated as a result of a sham trial in state court. The underlying incident arose in 1919 in Phillips County, Arkansas, after a white sheriff’s deputy fired upon a group of black cotton farmers who were meeting to discuss ways to organize and better their economic position. After the white sheriff’s deputy was killed, an outraged white community formed a mob and killed more than two hundred blacks. Law enforcement arrested twelve black men, including Frank Moore, and charged them with murder.

In the proceeding, the men were tried without the benefit of adequate counsel in 45 minutes. Their lawyer did not call any witnesses on their behalf and an all-white jury convicted them after only five minutes of deliberation. After losing in state court and the lower federal courts, the defendants—with backing from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court sent the case back to the federal district court with instructions to allow the men to present their constitutional claims. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

Justices James McReynolds and George Sutherland dissented, finding that the Supreme Court should not overrule the judgment of state courts. “The delays incident to enforcement of our criminal laws have become a national scandal and give serious alarm to those who observe,” McReynolds wrote.

But if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask—that counsel, jury, and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion, and that the State Courts failed to correct the wrong, neither perfection in the machinery for correction nor the possibility that the trial court and counsel saw no other way can prevent this Court from securing to the petitioners their constitutional rights.


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