Brown v. Mississippi

Brown v. Mississippi (1936) was a landmark US Supreme Court decision issued at a time when the Court was most noted for its opposition to some of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. The Court was so set in its opposition to progressive reform that the justices were known collectively as the Nine Old Men.

Brown v. Mississippi (1936) was a landmark US Supreme Court decision issued at a time when the Court was most noted for its opposition to some of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. The Court was so set in its opposition to progressive reform that the justices were known collectively as the Nine Old Men.

Brown v. Mississippi, for which Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote the unanimous opinion, was important for at least two reasons. First, the facts of the case were shocking, calling into question the legitimacy of a legal process that would allow confessions coerced by violence. Second, the case marked the first time that the US Supreme Court reversed state court convictions that rested on coerced confessions.

The crime and the trial took place in Kemper County, Mississippi. Raymond Stewart, a white planter, died from a brutal beating on 30 March 1934. The three defendants, all black, were arrested shortly thereafter. One, Yank Ellington, was taken that night to the scene of the crime and alternately interrogated and hanged by a rope from a tree limb. One of his interrogators was a deputy sheriff, and the rope marks remained visible at his trial. He was then tied to a tree and whipped. Still refusing to confess, he was released. A day or two later he was picked up and whipped again until he confessed.

The other two men, Ed Brown and Henry Shields, were taken into custody on the night of 1 April. The same deputy came to their jail cell, where each was laid across a chair and whipped viciously with the buckle end of a strap. The beatings continued until they confessed.

The defendants were indicted on 4 April and arraigned later that day. Their trial began on 5 April and concluded on 6 April. They were found guilty and sentenced to death. Thus, in the course of one week the crime was discovered and the defendants were arrested, indicted, tried, and sentenced to hang.

John A. Clark, L. P. Spinks, J. H. Daws, and D. P. Davis were appointed to represent the defendants. Spinks was sick and unable to attend the trial, leaving the defense to the other three men, with Clark in the lead. The prosecutor was district attorney John C. Stennis. After the trial, the judge refused to pay Clark and the others the customary twenty-five-dollar fee for representing indigent defendants because he feared the public reaction if he authorized the payment.

Following the guilty verdicts, Clark appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court. Daws refused to take part in the appeal, and Davis’s involvement consisted only of allowing his name to be used. On 7 January 1935 the court affirmed the convictions, with Chief Justice Sydney M. Smith writing the opinion. The court held that the defendants’ confessions were properly admitted into evidence at the trial. Justice Anderson dissented. Appalled that the trial court had allowed the confessions into evidence, he said, “In some quarters there appears to be very little regard for that provision of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing persons charged with crime from being forced to give evidence against themselves. The pincers, the rack, the hose, the third degree, or their equivalent, are still in use.”

At this point, Clark suffered a mental and physical collapse. His wife, Matilda, called on a family friend, former governor Earl Brewer, who had a private practice in Jackson, to seek further review from the court. Brewer, largely at his own expense, took a suggestion of error (similar to today’s petition for rehearing) to the court. The suggestion of error was overruled on 29 April 1935, slightly over a year after the trial. Execution was set for 6 June. Justice Griffith dissented, joined by Justice Anderson. Justice Griffith said, “The transcript reads more like pages torn from some medieval account than a record made within the confines of a modern civilization which aspires to an enlightened constitutional government.”

Clark made a serious mistake in the direct appeal from the convictions. He failed to allege a violation of federal constitutional law at the trial, which would have secured the possibility of review by the US Supreme Court. Realizing this flaw, Brewer included a federal constitutional claim in his suggestion of error, so that the Mississippi Supreme Court’s overruling of the suggestion of error opened the way for review by the US Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court granted the petition for writ of certiorari. Brewer argued the case for the petitioners, and William D. Conn and William H. Maynard argued the case for the state. Brewer urged that the defendants had been denied due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. Describing the trial as a “pretense,” the Court’s ruling condemned the prosecutor and the trial court for allowing confessions known to have been extracted by torture and brutality to be offered and received into evidence. The Court said that a state was free to govern its own procedures unless in doing so it “offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” The state might even abolish jury trial, the Court said, but it might not “substitute trial by ordeal.” Further, “the rack and torture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand.” “It would be difficult,” the Court said, “to conceive of methods more revolting to the sense of justice than those taken to procure the confessions of these petitioners, and the use of the confessions thus obtained as the basis for conviction and sentence was a clear denial of due process.”

Following the Supreme Court’s reversal of the convictions and remand to the state courts, Stennis threatened to retry the case. Eventually, an agreement was reached whereby the defendants would plead no contest to a charge of manslaughter. Because of time already served, Brown effectively received a sentence of 7.5 years, Shields received 2.5 years, and Ellington received 6 months.

The personal and professional consequences for the major lawyers in the case were considerable. Clark not only bore the effects of his physical collapse but also paid a heavy political price. At the time of the trial he was serving as floor leader in the State Senate. He lost his reelection bid in the 1935 summer primaries and died five years later. Stennis was elected a circuit court judge in 1937 and served until 1947, when he was elected to the US Senate to fill the unexpired term of Theodore H. Bilbo. Stennis served for nearly forty-two years, one of the longest tenures in history.

Brown v. Mississippi was a watershed decision. The Nine Old Men had rendered a decision so progressive that it remains one of the US Supreme Court’s most important rulings.

Further Reading

  • Brown v. Mississippi, 297 US 278 (1936)
  • Morgan Cloud, Texas Law Review (1996)
  • Richard C. Cortner, A “Scottsboro” Case in Mississippi: The Supreme Court and Brown v. Mississippi (1986); James W. Ely, Law and History Review (Spring 1991)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Brown v. Mississippi
  • Author
  • Keywords Brown v. Mississippi
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 16, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 27, 2018