Jackson List: More on “Screws v. United States” BY Prof. John Q. Barrett

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Barrett_JohnQ  Last Sunday, I sent a Jackson List post about Shirley Sherrod’s March 2010 speech to a NAACP Georgia chapter and her connection to and remarks about Screws v. United States. (That post, slightly tweaked, is now a PDF file in the Jackson List archive see http://www.stjohns.edu/academics/graduate/law/faculty/profiles/Barrett/JacksonList.sju.)

Screws was a 1940s lynching case.  Three white men—Sheriff Claude Screws of Baker County, Georgia, a deputy sheriff (Kelley) and a city policeman (Jones)—beat Robert Hall, a Negro, to death with their fists and a steel bar.  In response, the United States government prosecuted the three for criminally violating Hall’s civil rights.  At trial, the jury convicted each defendant.  A federal judge then sentenced each to prison and to pay a fine.  In Screws v. United States (May 7, 1945), however, a deeply divided Supreme Court of the United States, including Justice Robert H. Jackson, reversed those convictions and remanded the cases for retrial.

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In response to my post, many wondered what happened to the federal criminal cases against Screws and his co-defendants on remand from the Supreme Court.  I had similar questions and started digging.

I first located a 2004 encyclopedia entry by Professor Dan Coenen, University of Georgia School of Law, reporting that the defendants were acquitted on retrial—see http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2937.

I later made contact with Dr. George Lovell, a political science professor at the University of Washington (geolovell@earthlink.net).  He is writing a book about the first two years of the Civil Rights Section (CRS) at the United States Department of Justice (focusing mostly on its correspondence with the public, not its appellate advocacy).  

According to Dr. Lovell, who gave me permission to pass this along (thank you, George),

Screws was tried again for the federal offense but was acquitted by the jury.  That is why the case is not reported.  My guess is that the acquittal did not have anything to do with the new jury instructions ordered by the Supreme Court, but instead with the low chances of drawing two straight fair juries for the case in Georgia at that time.

Screws remained Sheriff and was later elected to the Georgia state legislature but only served one term.

Before the first trial, the United States Attorney as well as Department of Justice officials from Washington tried very hard to get Georgia officials to prosecute the case.  Their response was to claim that they could not prosecute the case because they did not have any institutional capacity to investigate crimes, other than relying on sheriffs, which obviously would not work in this case.  (There is some information about this negotiation in Robert Carr, Federal Protection for Civil Rights:  Quest for a Sword (1947), a book which tells the broader story of the CRS.  Carr was executive secretary of President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights just before writing the book.)  The claim about the inability to investigate was partly just an excuse, but there was some truth to the underlying institutional claim.  In some states, the structure of state and local government made it very difficult to go after crimes of this sort.  That may have partly been by design or, at least, the design was not corrected in order to preserve the policing practices in use at the time. 

There were many similar cases that the federal government did not prosecute.  Often, U.S. Attorneys and the FBI were much more reluctant to pursue cases than was the case here.  Sometimes, state government officials or U.S. Senators would object effectively to federal efforts to intervene.  My sense is that such objections did not occur in this case because Screws had a lot of enemies and was seen as a problem, and thus he was not protected.   

Justice Department policies at the time required that before any federal criminal prosecution for civil rights violations could be brought, efforts had to be made to convince state officials to bring prosecutions.  Only after state officials refused to take action could the federal case proceed.  There are cases in Justice Department files where states effectively blocked federal intervention by conducting their own very cursory (or in some cases drawn out) investigations.

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I have located no information on any Georgia prosecutions of Screws, Kelley or Jones, or any modern effort to open a state-level investigation of their crimes.  I also do not know whether any of these men is still living.

I hope this is of interest and answers some of your good questions.

John Q. Barrett is a Professor of Law at St. John's University in New York City, where he teaches constitutional law,  criminal procedure and legal history, and he is the Elizabeth S. Lenna Fellow and a board member at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, New York.  This summer, he is teaching in St. John's program at ISDE in Barcelona.  Professor Barrett has in the past been named a "Professor of the Year" by St. John's law students and in 2009 received a Faculty Outstanding Achievement Medal from the University.  He is a graduate of Georgetown University (1983) and Harvard Law School(1986).

If you wish to join the Jackson List, send a “subscribe” note to barrettj@stjohns.edu.

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eHeziJackson List: More on “Screws v. United States” BY Prof. John Q. Barrett

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