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.

Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal agrees that the duty of prosecutors to turn over evidence is normally crystal clear. "Anything that comes to our knowledge that's exculpatory, we've got to give to the defense," he says, "and there's no exception to that."

Before Hamann researched On American Soil, he never thought Jaworski would intentionally subvert justice. Like many people of his generation, Hamann grew up idolizing Jaworski as the conscience of power and the bearer of truth in an age of duplicity. "Jaworski's reputation is pretty much unsullied," he says. "He was viewed as an amazing leading light, and this book is the first I know of that casts any aspersion on his reputation and record. In this book, Jaworski behaves just abominably."

In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
Baylor University
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.

In March 1974, while Jaworski was in Washington, D.C., pressuring the Nixon administration to release the president's secret tapes, Robert Draper left Houston to stay with his grandfather in his suite at the Jefferson Hotel. The 16-year-old idolized Jaworski. "He was a great guy to hang out with, really a wonderful grandfather, who taught me to throw a curveball," he says. "But also, he really provided a kind of template for achievement for a kid growing up. In other words, the idea of obtaining success and fame was not a fiction; I actually witnessed it take place, and not by dint of luck but rather by hard work and, for that matter, personal convictions."

Draper, a former Houston-based staff writer for Texas Monthly who now covers Washington politics for GQ, defends Jaworski with the same diplomatic petulance that his grandfather probably would, accusing Hamann of tackling a noble subject sloppily. He says Hamann negligently failed to interview any of Jaworski's surviving relatives, and could have tracked him down by simply Googling "Jaworski" and "grandson." "It seemed a bizarre omission," he says. "We could have given the author some perspective on Jaworski and what motivated him."

Jaworski was motivated in the early days by blinding ambition, Hamann argues. The author accuses Jaworski of ramming through the 1944 court-martial in an effort to impress the military's top brass, who he hoped would appoint him to the prestigious job of prosecuting Nazi war criminals. Jaworski confessed in his memoirs to lobbying hard for the assignment. Hamann later connected the dots, finding a letter Jaworski wrote to his wife at the outset of the court-martial. "Honey, this is a really big job I am on," the lawyer wrote. "It's being watched closely in Washington." Later he wrote to his brother-in-law "Boots" Trautschold: "Boots, I am up to my ears in the biggest job I ever tackled. I hope I can prove equal to it. It will be the biggest trial the War Department has had in this war." The letters led Hamann to conclude that Jaworski was preening. "He saw this case as the big way he was going to get that plum assignment."

Draper suggests his grandfather could have just as well been motivated to withhold the Cooke Report for more innocent reasons, such as deference to higher military authorities -- an understandable impulse during a sensitive time of war. Yet legal scholars are less forgiving. Court-martial expert Hillman points out that Jaworski effectively declassified the report when he used sections of it in the trial. "Once he used that information," she says, "it doesn't seem reasonable to continue to not disclose the rest."

In his writings Jaworski would later deny that he'd ever had any prosecutorial motive other than to seek justice. "I wouldn't try a prisoner of war nor any accused without the conviction that he was guilty," he wrote in his autobiography. "I just wouldn't do it! Either I had the goods on him, or I just wouldn't try him."

Draper concedes that the words ring somewhat hollow. He recalls his grandfather once describing the court-martial to him as a "very unfortunate case," and leaving the matter at that. "I do think he was a very moral person," he says, "but I also think his morals flinched now and again, as do ours all. He just was not particularly given to admitting that, and was in fact at times instead given to asserting the opposite. And Jack's got him there."

Jaworski's imperfect morality also extended to racial issues. Himself a victim of discrimination -- he was denied admission to the Houston Country Club because his name sounded Jewish -- Jaworski also defended it, representing the University of Texas, for example, in its fight against campus integration. But in other cases he battled racism, even when it meant offending his neighbors. As a young attorney in Waco, he vigorously defended a black murder suspect in the face of pressure from clients who intimated to take their business elsewhere, anonymous threats of violence against his family and taunts from longtime friends. And he later prosecuted Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett for flouting a federal court order demanding that he admit black students to the University of Mississippi. Taking on the job made Jaworski so unpopular in Houston that police were assigned to guard his home. "The so-called friends wailed in anguish," he wrote. "Strangers denounced me, the cranks threatened."

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