Screws v. United States 325 U.S. 91 (1945) was a case in which the US Supreme Court undid the federal civil rights convictions of three Georgia peace officers on a technicality. The three lawmen, Sheriff M. Claude Screws and deputy sheriff Jim Bob Kelley of Baker County, Georgia, and Newton, Georgia police officer, Frank Edward Jones, had beaten to death Robert Hall, a black man, while he was in their custody. The Sheriff admitted to the FBI that he had a grudge against Hall, in part because Hall was a vocal advocate for black civil rights. In addition, Hall had managed to get the state grand jury to summon the sheriff to answer questions about Hall’s allegations that the sheriff had unlawfully taken Hall’s gun.
The three Georgia peace officers beat Hall to death with their fists and billy clubs, because Screws was vengeful that Hall had gotten him summoned before the grand jury, and because Screws was just tired of Hall having any voice in the local black community. As was typical of the times, they got away with it. Almost. But then, yes, they did.
The three men were not charged with murder by the State of Georgia, as they would be today, should they be caught by dash cam or cell phone. Instead, the US Department of Justice, under pressure from President Roosevelt, and, after failing to get the State of Georgia to bring murder or manslaughter charges, brought civil rights charges against the three men under federal criminal codes dealing with the “deprivation of rights under color of law.”
The three men were found guilty under federal law, a crime carrying a fine of $1000 and a year in jail. They appealed their convictions to the Court of Appeals, which agreed with the lower court, then to the US Supreme Court. The Court said that the trial had been faulty, because, essentially, by beating Hall to death, the three peace officers had not intended to deprive Hall of a civil right and the jury should have been instructed that this was a major consideration for the crime, the intentions of the peace officers. The peace officers did not argue this, the Supreme Court brought it up for them. Essentially the court said that although it appeared they were guilty of manslaughter or murder under Georgia laws, this did not amount to a federal civil rights violation if the officers were not purposefully depriving Hall of his civil rights by beating him to death, and the proper place to decide whether this was what happened was in a jury. The case was sent back to the federal court, and the second trial did not convict the three men. Screws worked as Sheriff in Baker County until he was elected to a single term as a state senator.
“The case comes here established, in fact, as a gross abuse of authority by state officers. Entrusted with the state’s power and using it, without a warrant or with one of only doubtful legality, they invaded a citizen’s home, arrested him for alleged theft of a tire, forcibly took him in handcuffs to the courthouse yard, and there beat him to death. Previously, they had threatened to kill him, fortified themselves at a near-by bar, and resisted the bartender’s importunities not to carry out the arrest. Upon this and other evidence which overwhelmingly supports the verdict, together with instructions adequately covering an officer’s right to use force, the jury found the petitioners guilty.”
The Supreme Court opened the discussion of the case with this to say about the murder of Hall: “This case involves a shocking and revolting episode in law enforcement.” In 1945 the probability of a white peace officer being tried for the lynching of a black man was close to or equal to zero. It was difficult to see what justice could be brought by trying men for violating his civil rights for beating him to death when his actual murder was not a crime that was ever investigated by the State of Georgia. Today, accusations of police brutality are on the rise because police car cameras and citizen cell phones are capturing the necessary evidence for making such accusations.
Yes, three drunk lawmen beat a black man to death in Georgia in 1945, and they got away with it, with the help of the US Supreme Court and its belief that a fair trial was possible, or so it seems to me. So, the federal court did not let the jury decide whether death was a civil rights violation, so let’s see if we can get two lynching convictions in a row? In 1945, in the US, lynchings were rarer than they had been, partly because of the black service men in WWII, but also because of a greater integration into American society of blacks in the northern states and the West. Segregation was still the rule, but society was becoming more civil.
The Supreme Court was very concerned by the murdering sheriff’s civil rights being trod upon, but a black man beaten to death and his civil rights, well, that could be argued. Still, a lot of authors and civil rights advocates consider this case to be a turning point, in spite of its horrid end results, three white lawmen freed from responsibility for a “shocking” crime, to the end that the Supreme Court later heard cases that did grant civil rights to blacks.
Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes under American Law by Frederick M. Lawrence, ISBN-13: 978-0674738454, Harvard University Press (May 15, 1999)