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The Massie Trial in Hawaii

This is the story of a historical trial that took place in Honolulu, Hawaii. According to Wikipedia, it was known as the Massie Trial or also the Massie Affair. It first began with a rape trial that then led to the Massie murder trial.

Thalia Fortescue, had come from a “well-to do” family and married a rising United States Navy officer named Thomas Massie. They attended a party in September 1931. There, Thalia Massey, apparently got drunk, got in a fight which resulted in her slapping an officer at the party. Then, she raced out the door and home alone.

Later that night, reportedly her officer/husband, Lieutenant Massie, found her at home where she made the claim that she had been raped by several Hawaiians. When she described the event later to police, she described her attackers simply as “locals”.

In short, several charges were brought based on some questionable evidence, including the fact that the police told her several pieces of critical evidence because she could not provide even basic identification of some of the defendants, and even a purported license plate number which she originally did not know. A fabrication of evidence was later suggested.

Eventually these defendants were brought to trial on the rape charges. This, despite her questionable testimony that did not hold well under cross examination.

The jury  included two Chinese and two Japanese jurors. Closing arguments in the trial were made on December 1, 1931.

Throughout the trial, the newspapers had been rife with rumors of Thalia having an affair with another officer before all these events. In addition, it was speculated that she originally had never in fact been raped. Instead, the claim was that it was her own husband who had come home and beaten her up and broken her jaw.

Compounding all this, her well-to-do mother arrived to support her daughter. Practically, she was really there to conduct a public relations campaign to salvage the family name.

After ninety seven hours of deliberations the jury announced that they could not reach a decision. They were deadlocked at six to six. The jury was dismissed without a conviction.

Racial tensions were high after the hung jury.  Across the island, there were fights between whites and non-whites.

Her officer/husband, Tommie Massie, was afraid that a second trial might also fail to bring a conviction. He conceived a plot  to obtain a confession.

He and three others kidnaped one of the defendants, a local well-known boxer named Joe Kahahawai. He was the darkest-skinned of all the original defendants who had been found not guilty in the original trial. These white men held him at gun point with the intent of forcing him to confess to the rape,.

When he would not confess to the rape, they beat him and then one of them shot him, in a fit of rage. They then wrapped his body in a sheet with the intent of dumping the body in a desolate place.

A police motorcyclist saw their car and thought that it looked suspicious. He pulled them over and discovered the body. All four were then arrested for murder.

Now, racial tensions were even worse because the killing was seen by the locals as a lynching. Conversely, the white community was in sympathy with Masssie and his friends.

A grand jury indicted all four. Famed defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who was seventy- five-years old and in retirement, decided to come out of retirement to defend the four.

He was promised a fee of $40,000; a very substantial amount of money in those days. He was assisted in the defense by attorney George Leisure, who arrived by ship on March 24, 1932. They were met by crowds of people, reporters and curious onlookers, at the Honolulu dock. This was a front-page case in Hawaii.

The trial began on April 4th in a packed courtroom. Throughout the trial, Thalia Massie attempted to portray herself as having no knowledge of the events or anything that her husband might have done.

However, the prosecution managed to prey on her feeling of superiority above the islanders; which led to her losing her temper, and ripping up a piece of evidence, and storming from the witness stand.  On that, the prosecution rested.

Defendant Thomas Massie was Darrow’s first witness. His defense was temporary insanity. Darrow called two psychiatrists to testify that the defendant had been temporarily insane at the time of the killing. He also called Thalia Massie who testified about the original alleged rape.

Darrow’s final argument was  carried live on local radio. He argued that the mental suffering of the rape and hung jury had driven the defendants to do what they had done. He occasionally wiped away tears while emphasizing the “black gates of prison” that they would face if convicted.

He argued all morning and into the afternoon. In his conclusion, he praised Hawaii as a “kindly and dispositioned people” and ended his closing with,  “I ask you to be kind, understanding, considerate – both to the living and the dead.”

The jury began deliberations on April 27th. After 47 hours,  their verdict for each defendant: “Guilty of manslaughter. Leniency recommended.”

Again, racial tensions were high. Martial Law was considered.

Hawaii Governor Lawrence Judd received a call from the President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, who urged that they be spared jail time. The governor agreed. He commuted their original 10-year sentence “to one hour, to be served in the custody of the sheriff.”

Wikipedia concludes with the following:

After a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering between Washington, D.C. and Honolulu, martial law was avoided. Instead, under pressure from the Navy, Territorial Governor Lawrence M. Judd commuted the 10-year sentences of the convicted killers to one hour, to be served in his office. Days later the entire group, including the Massies, the two other Navy men, Fortescue and Darrow, boarded a ship and left the island in turmoil. Thalia and Massie divorced in 1934; she committed suicide in 1963; he died in 1987.

Like an ending to a movie… In 1966, Albert O. Jones admitted that he was the one who had actually shot Joeseph Kahahawai.

Even though the blog is so long, I still include pic o’. This has its own curious bumper sticker evidence!

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