Miles J. LeBlanc 2017-01-21 11:01:46
A Duty to Ensure Fairness In A Death in the Islands: The Unwritten Law and the Last Trial of Clarence Darrow (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016), Dallas author Mike Farris recounts the events surrounding two explosive and racially charged trials in early 1930s Hawaii involving a group of Pacific Islander and Asian men known collectively as the “Ala Moana Boys,” whose experience was a parallel saga to that of their more notorious black contemporaries, the Scottsboro Boys of Alabama. Farris, who was inspired to write A Death in the Islands after stumbling upon Theon Wright’s Rape in Paradise in a Hawaiian bookstore more than 20 years ago, artfully weaves together separate incidents that occurred during the early morning hours of Sunday, September 13, 1931. While the author states in the introduction that he took liberties with dialogue and scenes, Farris, a licensed attorney, meticulously researched police reports and trial transcripts in an effort to stay true to the historical record. As Farris tells it, the Ala Moana Boys were accused of raping Thalia Massie, the wife of U.S. Navy Lt. Thomas Massie, on Ala Moana Road in Honolulu. In his book, he walks us through the events of that fateful night, juxtaposing real life scenes and characters while building a case with a rhythm as compelling as any fictional mystery. The resulting rape trial produced a hung jury deadlocked at six for acquittal and six for guilty, primarily, we learn, because of alibi evidence defense counsel presented and the prosecution shenanigans they exposed. Unhappy with the verdict, Farris tells us, Grace Fortescue, Mrs. Massie’s New York socialite mother, along with Lt. Massie and two of his Navy buddies, concocted a scheme to kidnap one of the Ala Moana Boys (Joe Kahahawai) and coerce a confession. But their plan went awry. On January 8, 1932, Kahahawai was shot and killed. All four co-conspirators were charged with second-degree murder. Fortescue’s family hired Clarence Darrow, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, as defense counsel. The trial proved to be Darrow’s last courtroom hurrah, and Farris notes that he was dismayed to learn that Darrow, erstwhile “champion of the underdog,” took the case only because of the hefty retainer of $40,000 (worth over $700,000 today according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index inflation calculator). The thrust of Darrow’s defense was two pronged: (1) that the jury should follow the unwritten law, which is that a man is justified in killing another man who rapes his wife, and (2) that Lt. Massie was insane at the time he allegedly shot and killed Kahahawai. But the judge admonished the jury not to consider the unwritten law. On April 29, 1932, after over 40 hours of deliberation, the jury found all four defendants guilty of manslaughter, but recommended leniency in punishment. The judge sentenced all four defendants to 10 years’ imprisonment at hard labor, but the governor of Hawaii immediately commuted the sentences to one hour each, which the convicts served during a reception held for them in his office. The surviving Ala Moana Boys were never retried. Given that Farris pronounces the innocence of the Ala Moana Boys in the foreword to the book, the reader should not be surprised that his perspective is far from strictly objective; indeed, Farris editorializes as he develops the narrative but without compromising the credibility of the book. Moreover, I suspect that advancing the narrative was made easier, maybe even enjoyable, because such a compelling story practically writes itself, not to diminish in any way Farris’ diligent and thorough research. Despite a moniker calling to mind a popular animated film, the Ala Moana Boys’ story is no Disney movie. Still, Farris interweaves positive threads throughout the book. He highlights the zealous advocacy of defense counsel in the rape trial and of the prosecutor in the murder trial, as well as the integrity and rectitude of the murder trial judge. Farris’ takeaway is that “although the potential for injustice can be great, all of us have a duty to ensure fairness for everyone, no matter their color or creed or station in life.” I concur. MILES J. LEBLANC, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, is assistant general counsel to the Legal Services Department of the Houston Independent School District. His public-sector law career includes serving as an assistant district attorney in Taylor County; a law clerk for Judge Jorge A. Solis of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas; an assistant attorney general in the General Litigation, Consumer Protection, and Administrative Law divisions of the Office of the Texas Attorney General; and in-house legal counsel to the University of Houston and Houston Community College.
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