The rule of law & Will Lockett

The Kentucky National Guard held back a lynch mob in front of the Lexington Courthouse on Feb. 9, 1920. Will Lockett, a black man, was later executed for the murder of a white girl.
The Kentucky National Guard held back a lynch mob in front of the Lexington Courthouse on Feb. 9, 1920. Will Lockett, a black man, was later executed for the murder of a white girl.

The New York Times praised Kentucky for upholding of the rule of law. The Brooklyn Eagle said it was "the first time south of Mason and Dixon's line that any mob of this sort had actually met the volley fire of soldiers." Civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois lauded it as "the second battle of Lexington."

Will Lockett, a black World War I veteran who had confessed to murdering 10-year-old white Geneva Hardman, hadn't been dragged out of the courthouse and hanged from the nearest bur oak tree. He had been pronounced guilty by a jury, sentenced by a judge and hanged legally at Eddyville Prison on March 11, 1920 — 30 days later, the minimum time required after sentencing by Kentucky's constitution.

Though a terrible price had been paid in deaths and injuries, the rule of law had been upheld. Well, perhaps. If it was the rule of law, it's one that we in 2014 have a difficult time recognizing. Lockett was convicted but the question of his guilt remains an open one.

The large crowd, estimated at about 5,000, outside the Lexington courthouse Feb. 11, 1920 did not initially resemble a mob. Many of the people had come for Court Day — a time to sell and buy livestock, do necessary town business and socialize in an era when even Fayette County rural folks lived in isolation. Of course they had heard of the murder, and they were angry and upset. But they weren't a mob as yet.

Lockett's trial was a product of bad timing and a certain hubris on the part of court and state officials. The presiding judge, Charles Kerr, had considered a change of venue but Mayor Thomas Bradley and Police Chief Jerre Reagan both thought it a chance to demonstrate Lexington's judicious example.

They would prove to Gov. Edwin Morrow — a rare Republican in that office and a staunchly committed foe of lynching — that Lexington was a civilized urban center where people respected the process of the law.

That process was a tentative and hurried one. The whole trial lasted only 35 minutes, which included the time each juror took to fill out the jury forms. The trial is well described in J. Winston Coleman, Jr.'s Death at the Courthouse, published in 1952.

When asked if he wanted to plead guilty or not, Lockett mumbled something that the court clerk had to repeat to the judge: "Defendant pleads guilty, your honor." Lockett didn't take the stand. His court-appointed lawyer, Col. Samuel Wilson, showed the court Lockett's army discharge which listed his conduct as "very good," but that was the only defense offered.

Right at the moment when Wilson started to read a statement allegedly made by Lockett, the mob's roar could be heard outside and near-panic erupted in the courtroom.

"It's started," someone shouted. Deputies with drawn pistols shouted commands for people to take their seats. The commonwealth attorney, Col. John R. Allen, pleaded for the law's process. Allen urged the jury not to leave the jury box for its verdict. "As John G. Stoll, foreman, was signing the verdict, the crowd's roar down on the street sounded louder .... heavy rifle fire with bursts from the riot guns as a man rushed wildly into the courtroom shouting: 'Judge, you'd better let 'em have the nigger! They're going to tear down the courthouse if you don't.'"

Outside the courthouse, a newsreel cameraman urged some spectators to "shake your fists and yell." They did, which excited those in the rear of the crowd who started to charge forward. The end result was that the Kentucky National Guard opened fire and six people in the now-mob were killed, with some 50 wounded.

Mob, judge all certain of guilt

The crowd outside the courthouse had one thing in common with the judge, jury and lawyers: Everyone was certain of Lockett's guilt. He had confessed, after all. No one cared that the confession came without counsel. Miranda rights were 40 years away. No one thought that the accused could have been confused and frightened into a confession.

John D. Wright, Jr.'s "Lexington's Suppression of the 1920 Will Lockett Lynch Mob" reports that in 1919, "ten Negro were lynched, a number of whom were in uniform" in Kentucky alone. Lockett was still in uniform when he was captured — a soiled and torn uniform, as several newspapers reported. That he might well have thought he was going to be one more lynching victim even before the crowd gathered doesn't take much imagination.

Ninety years later, we know a lot about false confessions. Factors include mental disorder, succumbing to overwhelming pressure and the belief that they'll be let free if they say what their interrogators want.

And, of course, there's the element of racism.

We don't have to go back to 1920 Kentucky. We need only to cite the notorious Central Park jogger case in 1989 in New York where five 14- to 16-year old African-American and Hispanic youths were coerced into confessing to a notorious crime. DNA evidence and the real criminal proved the confessions false years later.

More confessions to confirm guilt?

Lockett released strangely coherent statements to the press through his lawyers or from the warden at Eddyville prison.

Though eye witnesses continuously describe Lockett as incoherent and his initial confession was described as "confused," his written statements were almost eloquent.

"I know I do not deserve mercy, but I am sorry I committed the crime and I would give anything if the little girl could be brought back to life," was the statement released by Lockett's attorney right before the trial.

The warden at Eddyville, John B. Chilton, released another statement by Lockett: "I am ready to die now anytime the court wants me to whether it be in a week or thirty days .... I am sorry I did it. I am spending all my time praying and reading the Bible and I know I will be prepared to go when the time comes for me to die. I hope I will be forgiven."

But any questions that might have arisen about Lockett's statements were lost in new sensational news: Chilton told the public that Lockett had, three days before his execution, confessed to four other murders of women — three black and one white, one each in Illinois and Indiana and two in Kentucky. All by choking.

I wondered if any investigation of those other murders had occurred. All that I can find is that a very brief and cursory one took place after Lockett's execution but that the authorities quickly lost interest when nothing turned up. My own search did not find any birth or death records of the alleged white victim, the only one Lockett supposedly named.

It all seems very odd.

Gradually, Lockett's confession to these other murders became a source of doubt rather than confirmation of his guilt. Could four murders have attracted no attention? Especially a white woman's by a black man? Perhaps, although it seems unlikely.

But if this confession, too, was false, what purpose would it have served?

The confirmation of guilt. It must have soothed the qualms of thoughtful people in 1920; the frantic circumstances of his trial and conviction couldn't have passed notice.

Who would confess to murders that no one even knew of? But that's what 30 percent of people making false confessions do, according to a study done by the European Association of Psychology.

And why had Chilton been interrogating him at this point, so close to Lockett's scheduled execution? We don't know.

No time to raise questions at trial

There are other reasons to doubt Lockett's guilt even in the girl's death. One is the lack of any physical evidence. No blood on Lockett's clothes; no eyewitness accounts of him with Geneva. No motive. Contrary to rumor, the girl had not been sexually violated.

And there's another major contradiction to the crime theory. The lady who lived across the road from where Geneva first met her killer reported no commotion. The neighbor was in her yard as she often was, preparing ground for her garden, and daily heard children on their way to school. But she heard no sounds of struggle.

Geneva must have been hit on the head there on the road and brought into the field, the lady hypothesized to a reporter. She would have heard the struggle otherwise. Of course she was not a witness at the trial. No time for that.

But Geneva didn't struggle on the road; she struggled in the field where she was murdered. The rain-softened earth revealed a fierce struggle. So did the bent spokes of her umbrella. So did the bloody rock pasted with strands of her hair, the only physical evidence presented at trial.

Back at the road, two sets of footprints — a man's and a girl's — trailed calmly into the field, as if Geneva knew the person whose hand she could have been holding.

The Bureau of Justice has statistics about child murders that overwhelmingly suggest Geneva likely did know the man, who may have even been a relative.

Would a 10-year-old white girl have taken the hand of a stranger, a black man in a dirty army uniform? Would she have walked calmly into that deserted field with him?

I wonder if Lockett's court-appointed lawyer ever thought to ask that question. But then he too had so little time — 35 minutes including the time for jury signing — and the mob shouting at the gates.

Justice had to be rescued from the mob. Or at least, justice had to appear to be rescued.

But we can ask the question the lawyer never even ventured. Ninety-four years after "the second battle of Lexington," we wonder: Who did kill Geneva Hardman?

We know who killed Will Lockett.