Chambers versus Florida

The NAACP'S First Success At the Supreme Court

309 U.S. 227 (1940)

Argued Jan. 4, 1940       Decided Feb. 12, 1940

Thurgood Marshall and his Mentor Charles Hamilton Champion the Rights of the Common Man Relative to Cruel And Unusual Punishment

The first case successfully defended at the Supreme Court level by the NAACP was Chambers versus Florida.  The case centered around the robbery and murder of an elderly white  man, Mr. Robert Darsey .  He was murdered and robbed around 9:00 p.m. May 13, 1933 in Pomona  Florida.  Pomona is a small town in Broward County about twelve miles from Fort Lauderdale, which is the County seat.   

Within the next 24 hours about  forty Negroes were arrested.  The first of which was Charlie Davis.   His arrest was soon followed by the arrest of Williamson, Chambers, and Woodward (other petitioners in the case).  All of these arrests were done without a warrant.  These men were held in the Broward County Jail at Fort Lauderdale (least we forget some of the chads somebody played around with in the 2000 presidential election, but that is another story).  

On Sunday, May 15,  several of these men were taken to Miami under the pretext of protecting them.  They were returned to Broward County the next day.  They still had not confessed.  They were questioned repeatedly during the course of a week, without counsel or contact with their families.  No formal charges had been brought against any of these men.  Various confessions were unacceptable to the State's Attorney and they were repeatedly questioned until finally something acceptable was in writing.  These men were continually questioned by various people lead by  white convict guard J. T. Williams for a week.  

Finally  one of the men to break after repeated questioning and some all night vigils.   On Monday, May 21, around 2:30 a.m. Woodward broke and said he was guilty of the crime.  Williamson was the next to plead guilty.  Chambers and Davis still asserted their innocence.  The sheriff later told the court appointed attorney  Davis wanted to change his plea to guilty.  Chambers was then convicted at his trail based on the confessions of the others and the testimony of law enforcement officers.  All four men were sentenced to death.  

During the entire process from their  initial arrest, the men were never totally  removed from the  observation, influence, custody and control of the officers of Broward County.  This action would be critical to the challenge brought forth on their behalf by the NAACP. 

The critical question presented by the petition for certiorari, granted in forma pauperis, before the United States Supreme court was whether proceedings in which confessions were taken and utilized for convictions which culminated in sentences of death upon four young negro men in the State of Florida, failed to afford the safeguard of that due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.   As the decision was reversed, Justice Hugo Black stated the following in his opinion:  "...Unknown to the trial judge, the confessions on which the judgments and sentences of death were based were not voluntary and had been obtained by coercion and duress, the State Supreme Court granted leave to present a petition for writ of error coram nobis to the Broward County Circuit Court, 111 Fla. 707, 152 So. 437. The Circuit Court denied the petition without trial of the issues raised by it and the State Supreme Court reversed and ordered the issues submitted to a jury. 117 Fla. 642, 158 So. 153. 

Upon a verdict adverse to petitioners, the Circuit Court reaffirmed the original judgments and sentences. Again the State Supreme Court reversed, holding that the issue of force, fear of personal violence and duress had been properly submitted to the jury, but the issue raised by the assignment of error alleging that the confessions and pleas "were not, in fact, freely and voluntarily made" had not been clearly submitted to the jury. 123 Fla. 734, 737, 167 So. 697, 700. A change of venue, to Palm Beach County, was granted, a jury again found against petitioners, and the Broward Circuit Court once more reaffirmed the judgments and sentences of death. The Supreme Court of Florida, one judge dissenting, affirmed. 136 Fla. 568, 187 So. 156.  While the petition thus seeks review of the judgments and sentences of death rendered in the Broward Circuit Court and reaffirmed in the Palm Beach Circuit Court, the evidence before us consists solely of the transcript of proceedings (on writ of error coram nobis) in Palm Beach County Court wherein the circumstances surrounding the obtaining of petitioners' alleged confessions were passed on by a jury..."

Three major factors came from this case: 
  1. Convictions of murder obtained in the state courts by use of coerced confessions are void under the clue process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  
  2. The Court is not concluded by the finding of a jury that a confession by one convicted in a state court of murder was voluntary, but determines that question for itself based on the evidence.
  3.  Confessions of murder procured by repeated inquisitions of prisoners without friends or counselors present, and under circumstances calculated to inspire terror, held compulsory are not acceptable. 

To learn more about the court case, visit the following  sites:  
The Injustice Line:  http://www.injusticeline.com/chambers.html
Citizen Legal Reference Materials:  http://www.citizenlaw.com/caselaw.htm
Cornell University Law Search:  http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/

United States Supreme Court  Plus - This site that charges a fee for some of it's services:  http://www.usscplus.com/

Tweety  is a 17 years old teen staff writer for FAVOC Magazine.  

Thurgood Marshall


The First African American On The United States Supreme Court

On July 2, 1908, a child named Throughgood  Marshall was born in Baltimore Maryland to William Canfield and Norma Arica Marshall.  He was the named for his parental grandfather (a former slave named Marshall) who took the first name when he entered the United States Army during the Civil War.  

Marshall is said to have stated that  by the second grade he had shortened his first name to Thurgood.  His mother worked in the segregated schools of Baltimore as a teacher after being among their first black graduates from Columbia's Teachers College in New York.  His father worked in the railroad industry and then as chief steward of the exclusive all-white Gibson Island Club.

Thurgood graduated from Frederick Douglass High School.  He entered the Lincoln University in Chester, Pennsylvania to study dentistry.  His older brother, William Aubrey (born in 1905) went to Lincoln University as well.  He  acquired a medical degree and was a noted chest surgeon and specialist in the illness tuberculosis.   Thurgood Marshall acquired a B. S. from Lincoln University in 1930.  He acquired his J.D. from Howard University in Washington D. C. in  1933, graduating magna cum laude.  During his senior year,  Marshall married Vivian Burey (Buster)  in September, 1929.  She attended the University of Pennsylvania.  After graduation, he immediately set up a law practice in the Baltimore, Maryland area with the assistance and well wishes of his family.   This was also around the time his love for public speaking and the law were taking hold.  This union would last until her death some twenty-five years later.   Buster died of cancer in February, 1955.  Later that year, he married Cecelia (Cissy) Suyat.  They had two sons.  Thurgood,  Jr. who works in politics and John William who works in law enforcement.

Marshall joined the NAACP in 1936.   He served as the organizations chief counsel from 1938-1961.   He and his mentor, Charles Hamilton won the first of many cases before the Court in 1940.  This case was Chambers versus Florida (see right).  

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.  He received his next two appointments under President Lyndon B. Johnson.  Those appointments were Solicitor General and U. S. Supreme Court Justice.

Marshall succeeded Tom C. Clark on the Supreme Court after he resigned June 1967.  Clark  had been appointed by Harry Truman in 1949.  Thurgood received is nomination  on June 13, 1967 and was sworn in on August 27 of the same year.   Ironically, he was succeeded by Clarence Thomas.  

Marshall served on the Unites States Supreme Court for 24 years.  After leaving the court on January 24, 1993, he died several years later of heart failure at Bethesda Navel Medical Center, at the age of 84.  He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia.  His grave is in section 5 near those of several other former justices.

During his lifetime, Marshall accomplished many positive things that assisted  in his quest for equality and freedom.  He was a champion for the causes of minorities and the poor.  His legacy will endure for generations to come. 

Today, at Pratt Street, outside the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, noted sculptor Reuben Kramer's interpretation of this civil rights legend stands.

Thurgood Marshall is probably best known for his involvement in the Brown Desegregation Cases of the mid fifties.  In Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, School Desegregation was deemed unequal and unconstitutional.   He had a 32 of 35 winning record in front of the Supreme Court at the time of his appointment.

Additional Sites:  
Thurgood Marshall: www.ThrgoodMarshall.com
Timeline:  http://members.aol.com/klove01/marshall.htm
Overview:  http://library.thinkquest.org/10854/tmarsh.html
FBI Files on Marshall:  http://foia.fbi.gov/marshall.htm  
Arlington National Cemetary  http://www.arlingtoncemetery.com/tmarsh.htm
National Portrait Gallery:  http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/harmon/marsharm.htm
Home To Harlem:  http://www.hometoharlem.com/Harlem/hthcult.nsf/notables/thurgoodmarshall
Thurgood Marshall Fund:  http://www.thurgoodmarshallfund.org
Biography:  http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/122/hill/marshall.htm
Brown v. Board of Education:  http://brownvboard.org/

There are many books available that cover the life of  Thurgood Marshall.  Check with your favorite bookstore.  

Chaybri is a 17 years old teen writer for FAVOC Magazine. 

** Photo at the top is from the Library of Congress Archives. 


Marshall observed, at his retirement dinner in 1991, that he wanted to be remembered simply as a man who had done "what he could with what he had."
-Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall


Before there was any history... 

There was black history!  

We Must Never Forget!