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Feb. 23, 2024

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Tacoma police trial in Manuel Ellis’ death holds echoes of 1938 killing

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Around 3 a.m. on Saturday, March 26, 1938, Seattle police officers Patrick Whalen, Frederick Paschal and W.F. Stevenson responded to the Mt. Fuji Hotel in Pioneer Square. A guest reported that two strangers approached his closed door and asked for a drink in what he thought was an attempted robbery. Based on their voices, he assumed they were Black.

The officers found no suspects, but the hotel’s proprietor asked them to take away a Black hotel waiter who’d fallen asleep in a rocking chair in the lobby and a woman suspected of selling alcohol.

As they were bringing the handcuffed waiter, Berry Lawson, 27, downstairs to the street, he “broke away and plunged downward, crashing his head on a doorway and stair edge at the bottom,” The Seattle Times reported the next day, based on accounts from police. “The officers said Lawson apparently was under the influence of a stimulant.”

After stopping at police headquarters, the officers said they took Lawson to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy showed he died from internal head injuries, also having suffered a broken nose and bruises.

Then, like now, police facing criminal charges for deaths caused on duty was exceedingly rare. Over the past century, just six deaths at the hands of police have resulted in criminal charges in Washington state. Lawson’s was the first.

It was the last time three officers in Washington were charged together with an in-custody death until today, as three Tacoma officers stand trial for the March 2020 death of Manuel Ellis.

In the intervening decades, Spokane police Officer Karl Thompson, Jr. was convicted of federal civil rights charges for the 2006 death of Otto Zehm. Two other officers in separate cases were acquitted. Auburn Officer Jeff Nelson is scheduled to stand trial for second-degree murder in March.

The Berry Lawson and Manuel Ellis trials, separated by 85 years, are carried by unique social currents at work nationally and in the Pacific Northwest that generated an appetite from the public for police accountability that prosecutors couldn’t ignore.

The trial of three Seattle police officers for Lawson’s murder riveted the city with revelations of bribed witnesses and coverups.

“All the facts”

Almost immediately after Lawson’s death, a group of Black church leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Taylor M. Davis, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church, called on the coroner and Seattle police detectives to investigate more closely.

A coroner’s jury was convened within days, and the officers’ version of events quickly began to unravel. Lenora Johnson, a Native American woman who’d been arrested along with Lawson for allegedly selling liquor and taken to the police station with him, challenged theofficers’ account.

She testified Lawson had no injuries when they arrived at the police station, but two officers had lagged behind with Lawson near the patrol car. The next time Johnson saw Lawson was in an elevator at the station.

“He was all mussed up and was lying down,” Johnson testified. “His face was stained with blood, which hadn’t been there when we rode to the station.”

But another witness, an unemployed laborer named John C. Franey, contradicted Johnson, saying he saw Lawson tumbling down the hotel staircase.

The conflicting testimony swayed the coroner’s jury to exonerate the three officers in Lawson’s death, ruling that he’d died from a fall down the stairs and praising the coroner for a “fair and impartial hearing.”

But over the ensuing week, 50 Black community leaders, including the Seattle chapter of the NAACP, which had been founded in 1909, urged King County prosecutor B. Gray Warner to revisit the case, insisting “that ‘all the facts’ were not presented” at the inquest.

They brought forward a barber named Travis Downs, who said he’d seen officers beat Lawson at the hotel but had been given $35 by police and told to “get out of town for a while,” The Times reported.

Instead, he spent the money getting drunk in Seattle. The next night, the officers found him again and put him on a train to Portland, where he received an additional $50 in the mail.

He kept the postmarked envelope addressed to him that the payment arrived in and turned it over to the NAACP.

On the strength of Downs’ statement, Whalen, Paschal, and Stevenson were charged with second-degree murder and booked into jail. They were released the next day on $5,000 bail, but the material witnesses against them — including Johnson and Downs — were locked up to ensure their availability for trial.

The officers claimed they were the victims of a conspiracy hatched by purveyors of the “white slavery trade,” a term with historically racist overtones that implied white participants in the sex industry must have been coerced. All three officers had conducted investigations into it.

“I know the white slave interests are out to get us for our many arrests in recent ‘skidroad’ white slavery investigations,” Stevenson told The Times.

Seattle police Chief William H. Spears immediately suspended the officers without pay. A few weeks later Spears fired them after prosecutors announced that Whalen and Stevenson confessed to bribing Franey.

Twists in the case

Their trial opened on May 23, 1938, in a courtroom packed with Black community members, The Times reported. During jury selection, the officers’ defense lawyers oriented their questions toward self-defense and noted Lawson was “a former convict.”

Johnson’s testimony never wavered from her earlier statements. She said Lawson was drunk, and that the officers roughly roused him before marching him downstairs.

During the ride to the station, Lawson said: “I’m awful sick,” she testified. “‘You will be worse than that before we get through with you,’” she quoted one of the officers saying.

At the police station, Whalen told the others to remove Lawson’s handcuffs, then Paschal led Johnson upstairs to be booked.

“When I saw [Lawson] next, he was stiffened out on the floor of the elevator,” Johnsons testified. “He was all bloody and was lying on his back,” with Whalen in the elevator.

Dr. Walter Scott Brown, a well-known Black physician, testified that a weapon, rather than stairs, may have caused Lawson’s injuries.

After the prosecution finished presenting its case, lawyers for the officers stunned the courtroom by declining to call a single witness before resting their case and handing it to the jury.

“If you bring in an adverse verdict in this case, there won’t be a police officer in Seattle who will dare to make an arrest,” defense lawyer Sylvester Garvin told the jury in his closing statement.

John M. Schermer, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor, countered: “I ask you how much force is necessary for three husky policemen to subdue a 150-pound man?”

After 14 hours and 20 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned guilty verdicts for all three officers on a lesser charge of manslaughter. They were sentenced to the maximum — 20 years in prison. The Washington Supreme Court later rejected their appeal.

But the case had more twists to come. Just ahead of their scheduled date to report to the penitentiary, the officers’ attorneys presented evidence that Lawson may have been in a fight before police arrived at the hotel, raising questions about whether the police had actually caused his fatal injuries. Prosecutors reopened the investigation.

It yielded a stunning outcome: The prosecutor who’d led the charge to convict the officers announced that he was recommending an outright pardon for Stevenson and Paschal. He sought to let Whalen’s conviction stand.

“I am sure they had nothing to do with Lawson’s death. I further am convinced that I, at last, know all the facts in this case,” Warner said.

Douglas, the judge who’d sentenced the officers, joined Warner in requesting pardons for Stevenson and Paschal because he had become aware of facts that, if presented at trial, “the jury would have acquitted them.”

Stevenson had turned on Whalen, providing a new account of the night Lawson died. Stevenson described Whalen’s attack on Lawson in the basement of police headquarters as swift, “brutal and unjustifiable,” The Times reported. Stevenson said he had kept Whalen’s secret out of concern for Whalen’s wife and five children.

Whalen reluctantly confirmed Stevenson’s account, and prosecutors agreed not to charge Stevenson with perjury for lying to the coroner’s jury.

Gov. Clarence D. Martin pardoned Stevenson and Paschal within weeks, but they were denied a bid to get their old jobs back because “the conduct of the officers after the death made them unsuitable as police officers.”

Whalen, who was due to begin serving his prison term the day before his co-defendants were pardoned, was hospitalized with a heart condition, delaying his incarceration. A doctor’s note said Whalen could die if he was transported to prison. Martin pardoned him in late 1939. Whalen called it “a wonderful Christmas present.”

Whalen lived as a free man for 24 more years, until his death at age 76. The civil service commission refused to reinstate him as a police officer, and Whalen worked at a carpet-cleaning firm until his retirement in 1952.

Moments in history

Fast forward 85 years, and there are compelling echoes between the prosecutions then and now. As in Lawson’s death, the Tacoma officers charged with killing Ellis were initially absolved of responsibility, until statements from eyewitnesses sharply contradicted the officers’ accounts, with details that were shared with activists rather than police.

In Ellis’ death, his sister Monet Carter-Mixon, with support from her attorney James Bible and the grassroots racial-equity advocates at the Tacoma Action Collective, were instrumental in gathering evidence and applying public pressure to prosecutors that led to charges against the officers.

More than the facts of the two cases, however, University of Washington history professor James Gregory said societal flashpoints demanding police accountability most likely elevated the deaths of Lawson and Ellis to cases that prosecutors were compelled to charge.

In the late 1930s, industrial workers unions, with growing numbers of Black and Filipino members, paid closer attention to racial equity, and began getting “leverage with city and county and state governments,” Gregory said. “That’s part of the context, why prosecutors responded differently to the Berry Lawson case than they might have a few years earlier.”

He called the “abusive treatment” of Black men by police “unrelenting” throughout U.S. history, including decades when no police were charged for deaths in Washington state and the present.

“But there are periods where pressure from social justice movements, African-Americans and their allies bring policy responses, bring public officials to address these ongoing issues of brutality and mistreatment,” Gregory said. “In periods where that’s happening, there’s possibility for prosecutions.”

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