The 1909 Supreme Court case of U.S. vs. Shipp is an amazing story which provided what many acknowledge as the foundation for federal habeas corpus actions in state criminal cases. This meant when allegations are alleged that constitutional rights had been violated in state criminal court cases, there is a right to appeal to a federal court. According to the American Bar Association Journal (June 2009), the case also involved two brave black lawyers who forever changed the U.S. justice system, while “their practices were destroyed, their homes burned to the ground and their client murdered.”
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, Ed Johnson, an African American man, was wrongfully convicted by a jury of twelve white men of raping Nevada Taylor, a white woman. The jury decision was clearly not based upon credible evidence “but the result of community atmosphere being so poisoned by racism that there was no way the defendant could have received a fair trial.” Judge McReynolds promptly sentenced Johnson to death by hanging in one month. His assigned lawyers did not appeal. With great reluctance because of the possible negative impact on their practice, two black lawyers, partners Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, agreed to take the appeal.
When asking for a stay pending appeal, McReynolds scolded them, “Do you think a Negro lawyer could possibly know the law better than a white lawyer?” When the state court appeal for a stay failed, Parden and Hutchins filed an unusual petition – to the federal court alleging numerous violations of Johnson’s constitutional rights. McReynolds commented that their appeal was frivolous because “federal judges do not have the authority to issue stays in state criminal cases.” Parden’s federal court petition was denied, with only 10 days for appeals. Parden appealed directly to U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan for the stay pending appeal. For the first time in history, a black lawyer was lead counsel in a case before the Supreme Court.
When news spread that Harlan had granted the stay, a lynch mob, with Sheriff Shipp’s complicity, stormed the jail, put a noose around Johnson’s neck, demanding his confession of guilt. Facing death, Johnson’s last words were that he was innocent. The mob hanged Johnson and shot him 50 times.
Sheriff Shipp and his deputies were charged by the Supreme Court with contempt of court for failure to protect Johnson. Defendants, in the first and only criminal trial in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, were found guilty and sentenced to jail. The Supreme Court eventually affirmed every one of Parden’s constitutional arguments, including a federal right to a fair trial in state criminal proceedings. Johnson’s headstone contains his last words: “God bless you all. I AM an innocent man.”