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Forgotten Landmark: The Riveting Story of U.S. v. Shipp, the Only Criminal Trial in Supreme Court History – Part Four

Up to this point, our discussion of the case of United States vs. Shipp here, here, and here might seem like a triumph of due process and the orderly administration of justice. Sadly, the story is about to take a tragic turn for the worse.

News that Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins were able to convince the Supreme Court of the United States to grant the habeas corpus petition of Ed Johnson, a 19-year old black man convicted of raping a 23-year old white woman named Nevada Taylor, was not met with enthusiasm with the residents of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It didn’t take long for them to show how little enthusiasm they held for the decision.

On March 19, 1906, dozens of armed men stormed the Hamilton County Jail. They were surprised to find no resistance from law enforcement. Sheriff Joseph Shipp, claiming that the talk of lynching was nonsense, had given all of his deputies except for 72-year old jailer Jeremiah Gibson the night off. To make matters even more suspect, all of the other inmates had been removed from the floor that Mr. Johnson’s cell was located on, leaving him alone in his block.

The attack on the jail began at approximately 8:00 p.m. The mob used sledgehammers to break the iron locks that were keeping Mr. Johnson safe in his cell. Sheriff Shipp actually DID appear at the jail to respond to the mob, but was told to wait in the bathroom, to which he complied while the mob did its work.

It took three hours for the mob to force their way into Ed Johnson’s cell. They took him to the county bridge that spanned the Tennessee River, placed a noose around his neck, and told him that he might as well confess, since there was nothing he could do to save his life. But newspaper reports stated that Mr. Johnson maintained his innocence while addressing the crowd.

“I am ready to die. But I never done it. I am going to tell the truth. I am not guilty. I am not guilty. I have said all the time that I did not do it and it is true. I was not there. God bless you all. I am innocent.” Those were the last words of Ed Johnson.

The crowd was in a frenzy at Mr. Johnson’s refusal to confess, and he was lifted into the air by his neck. As his body swung, the crowd opened fire. One of the shots broke the rope and his body crashed to the planks of the bridge. Despite having been shot more than 50 times while suspended from a rope, one man in the crowd shot Mr. Johnson point blank five more times.

They left the body of Ed Johnson laying there with a note pinned to his chest: “To Justice Harlan: Come get your nigger now.”

The Supreme Court and President Theodore Roosevelt learned of the lynching the following day. In an interview with the Washington Post, Justice John Harlan, who signed the Order granting Mr. Johnson’s habeas petition, stated that “Johnson was tried by little better than mob law before the state court. He had the right to a fair trial, and the mandate of the Supreme Court has for the first time in the history of the country been openly defied by a community.” The New York Times echoed a similar sentiment, stating “The open defiance of the Supreme Court of the Uni­ted States has no parallel in the history of the court. No justice can say what will be done. All, however, agree in saying that the sanctity of the Su­preme Court shall be upheld if the power resides in the court and the government to accomplish such a vindication of the majesty of the law.”

United States Attorney General William Moody sent two Secret Service agents to investigate the lynching. Their investigation lasted for three weeks, and on May 28, 1906, Attorney General Moody did something that had never been done before or since: he filed a petition charging Sheriff Shipp, six deputies, and 19 leaders of the lynch mob with contempt of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Justices unanimously approved the petition, and unanimously agreed to retain original jurisdiction of the case.

On October 15, 1906, Sheriff Joseph Shipp and his 25 co-defendants became the only persons in history to stand before the Supreme Court of the United States, enter pleas of “Not Guilty”, and post a bond.

Lawyers for the defendants argued that the Habeas Corpus Act of 1867 did not authorize the United States Supreme Court to intervene in a state criminal proceeding by means of federal habeas. The motion to dismiss filed by the defendants also argued that the court did not have legal power to stay Ed Johnson’s execution or to declare him a federal prisoner while it considered his habeas petition. Because the Supreme Court’s original order staying the ex­ecution was invalid, the defendants argued, the justices could not legally find the sheriff and others guilty of violating an illegal order. Due to the uncertain nature of what a federal habeas petition could even do at this time, the argument was convincing to many lawyers and observers. Writing for a unanimous Court, however, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes disagreed:

“This court, and this court alone, has jurisdiction to decide whether a case is properly before it, and until its judgment declining jurisdiction is announced, it has authority to make orders to preserve existing conditions, and a willful disregard of those orders constitutes contempt. The power and dignity of this court are paramount.”

The most unusual trial in the history of the United States of America would continue.

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