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.

Instead, Lomax became a flawed star witness for Jaworski's prosecution. His recollections of the black soldiers' call to arms were parroted the next day in the press, which had no reason to suspect his credibility. " 'They've got one of our boys and we're going to mob them!' " the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted. The paper described Lomax's testimony as a "fitting climax" to the second week of the trial.

Lomax might have been a more apparent suspect if Fort Lawton officials hadn't hopelessly bungled the post-riot investigation. Savaging the conduct of the fort's senior officers and their MPs, the Cooke Report found they had made no effort to detain or even identify rioters; they had ordered that the smashed barracks be cleaned and repainted before fingerprints could be collected; and within hours of discovering the body of Private Olivotto, they had allowed more than 100 exercising soldiers to jog straight through the crime scene. In the ensuing months, several of them would be quietly replaced or kicked out of the army.

Given such incompetence, most of Jaworski's case hinged by necessity on the testimony of eye witnesses. Yet a lot of this testimony was coerced; Jaworski was famous for his ability to scare witnesses into plea-bargaining. Beeks hammered away at the issue in trial, but he could never prove the harsh methods could have altered the soldiers' stories. The Cooke Report could.

Samuel Snow says he never hit anyone on the night of the riot.
Samuel Snow says he never hit anyone on the night of the riot.

For example, Corporal Willie Ellis of Houston singled out fellow Houstonian Arthur Hurks during the trial as one of the rioters. Yet testifying to Cooke, Ellis had initially implicated another four soldiers, but then admitted under pressure that he'd been lying. Hamann believes Ellis was making up his story in an effort to win a lighter sentence. "Ellis was a real snake," he says. "He was doing anything he could to get himself off, and that included fingering Hurks."

Hurks, in fact, had been named in the Cooke Report by a half-dozen witnesses, both black and white, both soldiers and MPs, as someone who never went to the Italian Area, as a hero who instead stayed in the black barracks and tried to dissuade his fellow soldiers from joining the riot.

He wasn't the only soldier convicted despite an alibi. Testimony in the Cooke Report points to John Hamilton of Houston, a man later sentenced to eight years of hard labor, as someone who should have instead been praised for rescuing Farr, whose description of his savior matches Hamilton's height and prominent ears. Farr's version of events almost exactly corroborates Hamilton's own statements at the time, as well as Hamilton's interviews with Hamann years later in Houston, when the veteran recalled, "I told them he was an American."

Clearly, the Cooke Report would have turned the trial upside down had Jaworski, the only man who'd read it, followed his duty to release it.

At the outset of the trial, Beeks was told that the contents of the Cooke Report were top secret and not available to either attorney. In reality, Jaworski was not only intimately familiar with the report but he had even sat in on many of the original interrogations.

Near the end of the trial, Beeks finally suspected that Jaworski had been misleading him. Jaworski brazenly used testimony straight from the Cooke Report in court, prompting Beeks to turn to his rival and demand a copy of the investigation. Jaworski claimed Beeks didn't have the proper security clearance and would have to petition the secretary of war. "And if you can get the same authority, you can get this," he said. "But don't ask me. I have no authority to turn it over to you."

"Well, I think the court has the authority to make that available," Beeks countered. Although the judges didn't have the report, a sympathetic adjudicator pledged to seek it for Beeks. Jaworski was apoplectic. "Oh, no, that is entirely improper!" he blurted. Jaworski was the only person involved in the trial who knew anything about the report's testimony. The next morning, he approached Beeks and offered a deal: If Beeks would drop his request for the report, Jaworski would share select portions of any testimony he used. Beeks agreed, having no idea that he was bargaining away 1,500 pages of documents that could have blown a hole in Jaworski's case.

In reality, as the trial judge advocate, Jaworski was bound to volunteer the report in its entirety. "While his primary duty is to prosecute," states the 1928 Manual for Courts Martial, "any act (such as the conscious suppression of evidence favorable to the defense) inconsistent with the desire to have the whole truth revealed, is prohibited."

Jaworski would later brag with impunity about complying with the same court-martial rules that he'd apparently broken. "I traveled across the country to other commands, at their request, to serve as trial judge advocate," he wrote in Confession and Avoidance. "In the Army, at that time, this position compared to that of a prosecutor, except that the trial judge advocate was sworn to divulge all the facts in his possession, no matter which side was helped."

Rutgers law professor Beth Hillman, author of Military Culture and the Cold War Court Martial, says Jaworski undeniably crossed an ethical line. "It seems clear that his actions in that case violate the code that binds prosecutors," she says. "There's not much doubt about it. Having that big report is a problem."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets