Moore v. Dempsey

Moore v. Dempsey
Moore v. Dempsey
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued January 9, 1923
Decided February 19, 1923
Full case name Frank Moore, et al. v. E. H. Dempsey, Keeper of Arkansas State Penitentiary
Citations 261 U.S. 86 (more)
43 S. Ct. 265; 67 L. Ed. 543; 1923 U.S. LEXIS 2529
Prior history Defendants convicted, Phillips County, Arkansas; affirmed, Arkansas Supreme Court; certiorari denied, U.S. Supreme Court; petition for habeas corpus granted, Pulaski County, Arkansas; vacated, Arkansas Supreme Court; petition for habeas corpus denied, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas
Mob-dominated trials were a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Federal courts were furthermore duty-bound to review habeas corpus petitions that raised claims of discrimination in state trials, and to order the release of unfairly convicted defendants if the alleged violations were found to be true. Eastern District of Arkansas reversed and remanded.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Holmes, joined by Taft, McKenna, Van Devanter, Brandeis, Butler
Dissent McReynolds, joined by Sutherland
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV

Moore et al. v. Dempsey, 261 U.S. 86 (1923), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled 6-2 that the defendants' mob-dominated trials deprived them of due process guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and reversed the district court's decision declining the petitioners' writ of habeas corpus.


The facts of the case

Moore v. Dempsey was the first case concerning the justice given to African-Americans in the South that came before the Court in the twentieth century. The case resulted from the Elaine Race Riot in Phillips County, Arkansas, which followed the shooting death of a white railroad security employee on September 30, 1919 after shots were exchanged outside a church where a black tenant farmers union was meeting. Who fired the first shot is unknown. The governor, Charles Hillman Brough, led a detachment of federal troops into the county, arresting hundreds of blacks and allowing other blacks to move about in public only if they had a pass signed by military authorities and attested by a reputable white citizen. In the week after the shooting roving bands of whites and federal troops killed upwards of two hundred blacks.

In the aftermath of the violence, a grand jury made up of local landlords and merchants decided who would be indicted. Those blacks willing to testify against others and who agreed to work on whatever terms their landlords set for them were let go; those who had been labeled ringleaders or who were judged unreliable were indicted. According to the affidavits later supplied by the defendants, many of the prisoners had been beaten, whipped or tortured by electric shocks to extract testimony or confessions and threatened with death if they later recanted their testimony.

On November 2, 1919 the Phillips County authorities began trying the defendants on charges of the murder of connected to the violence. Eleven defendants were sentenced to death after perfunctory trials: counsel for the accused, who did not meet their clients until the trial began, called no witnesses, produced no evidence, and did not call on the defendants to testify. The first trial took all of three-quarters of an hour, after which the white jury returned a guilty verdict on the first-degree murder charge in eight minutes. Later trials were just as short; the juries took less than ten minutes to reach a verdict in each case. A twelfth defendant was sentenced to death several weeks later, after the jury deliberated for four minutes.

Thirty-six other defendants chose to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than face trial. Sixty-seven other defendants were convicted and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.

The trials were mob-dominated, as crowds of armed whites milled around the courthouse. There was never a chance of an acquittal, as the jurors feared the mob.1 The Arkansas Gazette applauded the trials as the triumph of the rule of law, as none of the defendants had been lynched.

The investigation

The NAACP sent its assistant secretary, Walter F. White, to investigate the violence in October, 1919. White, who was blonde and blue-eyed and able to pass for white, was granted credentials from the Chicago Daily News, which enabled him to obtain an interview with Governor Brough, who in turn gave him a letter of recommendation and his autographed photograph.

White was only in Phillips County for a brief time before his identity was discovered; he took the first train back to Little Rock. The conductor told him that he was leaving "just when the fun is going to start", because they had found out that there was a "damned yellow nigger passing for white and the boys are going to get him". Asked what they would do to him, the conductor told White that "when they get through with him he won't pass for white no more!"

White published his findings in the Daily News, the Chicago Defender and The Nation, as well as the NAACP's own magazine The Crisis. Governor Brough asked the United States Postal Service to prohibit the mailing of the Chicago Defender and Crisis while others attempted to enjoin distribution of the Defender at the local level.

The appeal

The NAACP also took on the task of organizing the defendants' appeal. The NAACP for a time attempted to conceal its role in the appeals, given the hostile reception its report on the violence and the trials had received. Once it undertook to organize the defense it went to work vigorously, raising more than $50,000 and hiring Scipio Africanus Jones, an African-American attorney from Little Rock, and Colonel George W. Murphy, a Confederate veteran, former Attorney-General for the State of Arkansas and unsuccessful candidate for Governor on the Progressive Party ticket.

The defendants' lawyers were able to obtain reversal of the verdicts by the Arkansas Supreme Court in six of the cases in which death sentences had been imposed on the ground that the jury had failed to specify whether the defendants were guilty of murder in the first or second degree; those cases were accordingly sent back for retrial. The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of the six other defendants, rejecting the challenge to the all-white jury as untimely and finding that the mob atmosphere and use of coerced testimony did not deny the defendants the due process of law to which they were entitled. Those defendants unsuccessfully petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari from the Arkansas Supreme Court's decision.

The defendants petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that the proceedings that took place in the Arkansas state court, while ostensibly complying with the requirements of a trial, were in fact only a form, and that the accused were convicted under the pressure of the mob with blatant disregard for their constitutional rights. They had originally intended to file their petition in federal court, but the only sitting judge was assigned to other judicial duties in Minnesota at the time and would not return to Arkansas until after the defendants' scheduled execution date. The state chancery court issued the writ, which, although later overturned by the state Supreme Court, postponed the execution date long enough to permit the defendants to seek habeas corpus relief in federal court.

The state of Arkansas took a narrowly legalistic position, based on the United States Supreme Court's earlier decision in Frank v. Mangum. The State did not dispute the defendants' evidence of torture used to obtain confessions or mob intimidation, but argued that, even if true, this did not amount to a denial of due process. The district court agreed, denying the writ, but also found that there was probable cause for an appeal, allowing the defendants to take their case to the Supreme Court.

The Case

U.S. Supreme Court Proceedings

The Court considered not the guilt or innocence of the accused black men, but rather whether their rights were abridged under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 6-2 decision, Justice Holmes wrote for the Court that a mob-dominated trial violated the due process provisions guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and that federal courts, upon being petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, were compelled to review such claims of discrimination in state trials and to order the release of defendants thus unfairly convicted.


Justice Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.

In his majority opinion, Associate Justice Holmes outlined the pertinent facts of the case, in a somewhat acerbic manner,2, before proceeding to the Court’s considerations and decision.

The Court had previously ruled in Frank v. Mangum 237 U.S. 309 (1915) that, while mob interference with a criminal trial would amount to a denial of the due process promised by the Fourteenth Amendment, the state could undo the constitutional violation by allowing the defendant to challenge the conviction on appeal, foreclosing any federal review of the allegations of mob intimidation. The Court effectively overruled Franks, holding that the district court presented with a habeas corpus petition must examine the facts presented to determine if the defendants' rights had been violated.

Holmes' opinion acknowledged the rule in Frank, while holding that subsequent judicial review would not cure constitutional violations if the state courts, in fact, failed to correct the wrong:

We assume in accordance with that case that the corrective process supplied by the State may be so adequate that interference by habeas corpus ought not to be allowed. It certainly is true that mere mistakes of law in the course of a trial are not to be corrected in that way. 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 of avoiding an immediate outbreak of the mob can prevent this Court from securing to the petitioners their constitutional rights.

The Court therefore remanded the matter to the district court for it to determine if the defendants' claims of mob intimidation and coerced testimony were true:

We shall not say more concerning the corrective process afforded to the petitioners than that it does not seem to us sufficient to allow a Judge of the United States to escape the duty of examining the facts for himself when if true as alleged they make the trial absolutely void. We have confined the statement to facts admitted by the demurrer. We will not say that they cannot be met, but it appears to us unavoidable that the District Judge should find whether the facts alleged are true and whether they can be explained so far as to leave the state proceedings undisturbed.

McReynolds' dissent

Justice James C. McReynolds, joined by Justice George Sutherland, deemed the issue at stake to be "one of gravity". He suggested that if any man convicted of a crime in a state court may try his luck with the federal court by swearing that some events that have abridged his constitutionally-protected rights took place, the already long list of permitted delays in punishment would grow even longer.

Effects of the Decision

Per the Court’s ruling, the case was sent back to lower courts, where Arkansas freed all of the men as well as the other defendants who had been convicted of lesser charges and who were still imprisoned. Moore is significant for establishing precedent for wider use of federal writs of habeas corpus to oversee state court convictions that occurred in violation of federal constitutional rights, as well as marking the beginning of stricter scrutiny by the Supreme Court of state criminal trials.

External links

See also

Further reading


  • ^1 From Justice Holmes’ opinion: "According to the allegations and affidavits there never was a chance for the petitioners to be acquitted; no juryman could have voted for an acquittal and continued to live in Phillips County and if any prisoner by any chance had been acquitted by a jury he could not have escaped the mob."
  • ^2 When commenting on the Committee of Seven that apparently solemnly promised to a lynch-ready mob that "the law would be carried out", for example, Holmes notes that "According to affidavits of two white men and the colored witnesses on whose testimony the petitioners were convicted, […] the Committee made good their promise by calling colored witnesses and having them whipped and tortured until they would say what was wanted…"

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