Rush to Judgment

In World War II, Houston attorney Leon Jaworski prosecuted a group of black American soldiers. In a hurried-up trial, they were court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor. The verdict was probably wrong. And Jaworski had a lot to do with that.

A former lawyer, Hamann was intrigued and researched the incident for nearly a year. When his piece flashed onto television screens in two half-hour segments, it featured his interviews in Texas with convicted black veterans who still pled innocence. "Les Stewart just looked me in the eye and said as simply as can be, 'We didn't do it,' " Hamann recalls. But, he adds, the denials clashed with the story's hard evidence. "I think someone might have watched that and thought, 'Well, of course that's what they're going to say.' "

Hamann wasn't so sure. Fifteen years later, Stewart's unflagging claims of guiltlessness still haunted him. He decided to dig deeper.

In 2002, Hamann visited the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. His wife, Leslie, spent weeks rifling through disheveled crates, until one afternoon she pulled out three fat folders: the Cooke Report. Declassified in 1981 but never unearthed, the independent investigation of the riot included Brigadier General Elliot Cooke's interrogations of 160 officers and suspects. It would become the basis for Hamann's book, On American Soil. Winner of this year's prestigious Investigative Reporters and Editors book award, it shows how Jaworski's seemingly iron-clad case should have been torpedoed:

John Hamilton, Arthur Hurks and Les Stewart, all from Houston, were probably convicted for crimes they didn't commit.
Baylor University
John Hamilton, Arthur Hurks and Les Stewart, all from Houston, were probably convicted for crimes they didn't commit.
Colonel Leon Jaworski went on to become one of Houston's most famous and revered attorneys.
Colonel Leon Jaworski went on to become one of Houston's most famous and revered attorneys.

• Almost all the physical evidence of the riot had been destroyed at the scene by the military's own police and senior officers.

• Anecdotal accounts of the riot, which provided the sole basis for most convictions, often came from witnesses who may have been trying to get the best possible deals for themselves on plea bargain. Several of their statements to Cooke contradicted key parts of their subsequent court testimony.

• Some soldiers not charged by Jaworski clearly should have been, including a white man who would have been a leading murder suspect.

• The statements of several witnesses supported a theory that white soldiers, instead of a group of alleged black ringleaders prosecuted by Jaworski, had incited the riot.

• Jaworski won convictions of black soldiers whom numerous witnesses had described as peacemakers during the riot.

• The Cooke Report, a 1,500-page piece of evidence, was never released to the defense attorney.

Nobody disputes that the riot took place or that black soldiers were involved. Indeed, the conflict still can be traced to the poor judgment of a single black private in the Colored Area: Willie Montgomery hurled drunken slurs and charged at Guiseppe Belle as the Italian returned from a night on the town. Belle swung at Montgomery in self-defense and knocked him cold. Many black soldiers at the scene, thinking Montgomery had been seriously injured, charged down a hill into the Italian Area seeking revenge.

But the drunken fight was only part of the story. No more than ten days before the riot, the black soldiers, who were set to ship off the next morning to help fight the war in New Guinea, had been shown a propaganda film, Baptism of Fire, in which soldiers were exhorted to "Kill or be killed." Yet after the screening, measures were never taken to buffer the soldiers from the Italians whom they'd just been exhorted to massacre.

Instead, some of the few official keepers of the peace on duty that night fanned the violence, witnesses told Cooke. Black soldier William Jones said he thought he saw a white military policeman chasing Italians around the barracks. Willie "Slick" Curry, a black soldier from Shreveport, told an investigator that a white MP handed a flashlight to Herman Johnson, a black corporal, as he stood outside the door of an Italian barracks, and told him, "Go in and flush them out." Johnson and Curry went inside and beat every Italian they saw. Another black soldier said he saw a white MP in a jeep tell a black soldier, "You done a damn good job and saved us a job."

In the days leading up to the riot, white soldiers had clashed with Italians in the Post Exchange and elsewhere. Defense attorney William Beeks knew this but, lacking access to the Cooke Report, couldn't connect the incidents to the riot. He didn't know that the white soldier who had started the fight in the Post Exchange was Tex Stratton of Dripping Springs. Or that the MP who had responded was Stratton's friend, Clyde Lomax. A lot of evidence from the Cooke Report pointed to Lomax as the riot's out-of-control white MP.

A swamp boy from Louisiana prone to calling black people "niggers," Lomax was the first person to discover trouble brewing at the black barracks. He claimed that he heroically carried an injured African-American soldier to safety, notified his command and returned with a carload of MPs to quell the riot. But Lomax's story was contradicted in the Cooke Report by numerous other witnesses, Hamann says. The corporal of the guard that night said he wasn't notified of the riot by Lomax, but instead by the phone call from Farr. Lomax didn't show up until a half-hour later. Indeed, none of the other MPs who responded to the riot recalled seeing Lomax in the area. Five hours later, it was Lomax who directed a jeep through the woods to the remote spot where Olivotto's body was discovered hanging from a noose. The Cooke Report strongly recommended that Lomax be court-martialed.

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