The story of Ed Johnson and his attorneys changed the course of justice in America forever with a series of historic precedents and legal firsts. Ed Johnson was the first African American awarded a stay of execution by the US Supreme Court. Noah Parden, a local Chattanooga attorney, was the first African-American lawyer to appear before the US Supreme Court. For the first time, the US Supreme Court got involved in a state criminal case and halted an execution. After local Chattanoogans ignored the stay of execution and lynched Ed Johnson, the Supreme Court, the country and President Teddy Roosevelt reacted swiftly and with outrage. They investigated the lynching, and the High Court held their one and only criminal trial to find a handful of the perpetrators guilty.
On March 19, 1906, Ed Johnson, was mob-lynched from the second span of the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga. After a trial devoid of incriminating facts and with a clearly biased jury, Johnson was sentenced to death for the rape of a white woman. When the US Supreme Court granted a stay of his execution, a mob stormed the jail. Johnson was the second man to be lynched on the bridge, after Alfred Blount was hung from the first span in 1893. Johnson and Blount were two of the approximately 4,000 African Americans who were lynched from reconstruction to the civil rights era. Johnson’s last words, spoken from the bridge before he was killed, were, “God bless you all, I am a innocent man.”
Noah Parden and Styles Hutchens, two African-American attorneys from Chattanooga, provided a courageous and successful defense for Ed Johnson. In spite of death threats, they proceeded with the case after the majority of Johnson’s original legal team believed an appeal of the Hamilton County court ruling would be fruitless and frivolous.. After the case, the two men and their families fled Chattanooga for their own safety.
US Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, who had opposed Plessy v. Ferguson, had long waited for a civil rights case like Ed Johnson’s. Under Justice Harlan, the Court granted Johnson the country’s first stay of execution in a criminal case. The Court went on to find Hamilton County Sheriff Joseph Shipp and five co-defendants guilty of Contempt of Court for not enforcing the stay of execution and sentenced them to brief prison terms. US v Shipp set a landmark precedent for federal oversight of local civil rights issues which continues to be influential today.
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