What’s the worst legal decision in Mississippi history? That’s easy: Brown v. State, 161 So. 465 (Miss. 1935).

In a decision that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the conviction of three black men based on confessions obtained by a lynch mob through torturing the defendants. Judge Primeaux blogged about the case and the dissenting judge (Justice Griffith) a few weeks ago in this post.

The Brown case was also covered in Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown – The Lynching of Black America. The case involved the Kemper County murder of a white planter. Three black laborers were convicted based on a confession obtained by a deputy sheriff led mob.

Judge Primeaux quotes the dissent, which includes this description of old style Mississippi justice:

Upon his denial they seized him, and with the participation of the deputy they hanged him by a rope to the limb of a tree, and, having let him down, they hung him again, and when he was let down the second time, and he still protested his innocence, he was tied to a tree and whipped, and, still declining to accede to the demands that he confess, he was finally released, and he returned with some difficulty to his home, suffering intense pain and agony. The record of the testimony shows that the signs of the rope on his neck were plainly visible during the socalled trial. A day or two thereafter the said deputy, accompanied by another, returned to the home of the said defendant and arrested him, and departed with the prisoner towards the jail in an adjoining county, but went by a route which led into the state of Alabama; and while on the way, in that state, the deputy stopped and again severely whipped the defendant, declaring that he would continue the whipping until he confessed, and the defendant then agreed to confess to such a statement as the deputy would dictate, and he did so, after which he was delivered to jail.

The other two defendants were treated just as badly and then warned that if they recanted their confessions, the would be tortured again.

The deputy did not dispute the defendants’ account of the torture:

So confident were the police in their actions that when Deputy Dial followed the accused to the witness stand he did not dispute their testimony. Asked by the judge how seriously the men had been beaten, the deputy replied, ‘Not too much for a negro; not as much as I would have done if it were left to me.’ Despite having heard the accused complain of torture and Dial admit that the confessions had been extracted by force, the jury voted to convict. [At the Hands of Persons Unknown, p. 316].

No direct or circumstantial evidence connected the defendants to the murder other than the bogus confessions.

The Miss. Supreme Court refused to set aside the convictions by finding that the defendants did not properly raise objections to their “confessions”:

This record discloses no objection to the confessions on the ground of self–crimination, but, aside from that, they were competent when admitted, and, although the appellants had the right and an opportunity so to do, no request to exclude them was made after evidence tending to show their incompetency was introduced.

The majority reasoned that to set aside the confessions would give the defendants preferential treatment based on race:

The rules of procedure here applied are technical only in the sense that all such rules are, and what the appellants request is simply that they be excepted from the procedure heretofore uniformly applied to all litigants. This we cannot do. All litigants, of every race or color, are equal at the bar of this court, and we would feel deeply humiliated if the contrary could be justly said.

 Nothing herein said is intended to even remotely sanction the method by which these confessions were obtained.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that the defendants’ due process rights were violated. Dray describes the Brown decision as a stepping stone for federal civil rights decisions.

Sadly, lynch mob justice continued in Mississippi for over twenty more years. A mob lynched Mack Charles Parker in Pearl River County in 1959. The FBI solved the crime, but neither state nor federal grand juries indicted the perpetrators–who were known by all in the community.