Learning Center sponsors Ossian Sweet mock trial

By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News

The Michigan Supreme Court courtroom, Michigan Hall of Justice, was taken back in time to the year 1925 with a re-enactment of the Ossian Sweet Trial based on the Great Michigan Read Selection, "Arc of Justice, a Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age," by Kevin Boyle, a Detroit native.

The book and the resultant script, written by New York City attorney Albert Feuer, for the New York City Bar Associations' use in a similar mock trial tells the story of Ossian Sweet, a young black doctor, who moved into a white part of Detroit with his wife and child. His neighbors were determined to drive him out as they had driven away other black families.

On Sept. 9, 1925, a mob surrounded his house, throwing stones. Friends of Sweet, in the house to protect him, began shooting. One man was killed and one injured. Sweet and friends were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Clarence Darrow represented Sweet. The first trial ended in a hung jury, the second in an acquittal. The script includes parts of both Sweet trials.

High school students from Mason and Everett high schools portrayed the characters in the script and the audiences for each of the two performances, one at 10 a.m. and one at noon, served as the jury. The 10 a.m. performance was attended by Mason high school students; the noon performance acted and attended by Everett high school with students Trillium Academy, Taylor and Gladwin high schools in the audience.

Justice Michael Cavanagh welcomed the students to the courtroom. Cavanagh recalled that his father, like so many others, came to Detroit to work in the factories.

"Detroit's ever increasing population back then really strained the housing market," said Cavanagh. "Increased tensions between some of the city's racial and ethnic groups and, as in the Sweet case, the results were sometimes violent. In a moment we will enter Detroit Recorder's Court and as members of the audience you will be asked to serve as jurors to decide the case. It is interesting to note that you are one of the first juries to serve in this courtroom."

Cavanagh urged them to listen carefully to reach a fair decision. The noon jury did not come to a unanimous decision, although the majority voted not guilty.

The event was a strategic program of the Great Michigan Read, which is sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council (MHC).

"As a strategic partner," said Rachel Drenovsky, Learning Center coordinator, "the Learning Center received a grant from the MHC to help fund the event and related activities, including a small temporary exhibit in the Learning Center and a web page, which includes a video of the performances and companion curriculum materials."

The film of the trial was professionally edited and is available for free online.

"While the live reenactment involved around 300 students, teachers and chaperones," said Drenovsky, "the online resource could potentially reach thousands if used for class curriculum."

Drenovsky worked closely with teacher Linda Pierce of Mason High School and teacher Lothar Konietzko of Everett High School and their students. There were six speaking roles, and ten other defendants, who were non-speaking. Dr. Sweet's wife speaks but was not a witness.

"The student actors put in extra work to prepare for the performances," said Drenovsky.

To prepare for the event, Learning Center docents also held book discussions. Everyone learned more about Michigan's legal history from the book, and it offered the opportunity to discuss difficult issues. In a written evaluation, one docent commented, "I was surprised that I hadn't learned in school [about] the events and people depicted in this book."

"This is the first time we have held an event like this for high school classes," Drenovsky concluded. "We were extremely pleased to have the opportunity to welcome so many new schools and students. Overall, the response was incredibly enthusiastic from teachers, students, staff, and docents alike."

Published: Mon, Nov 28, 2011