The town that loved lynching

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, April 10 1989

The old sheriff of Montgomery County, Ben Hicks, had an answer for everything.

A black man had just been burned alive in front of his office in the courthouse square in the middle of Conroe while a crowd of hundreds of white men, women and children looked on. The sheriff himself had led the hunt which ended with the capture and brutal death of this man. The sheriff’s own deputies had stood on the outskirts of town and turned black people away, telling them “You can’t come through. They’re going to burn a nigger.”

But after the burning was over and the black man’s ashes had been kicked away, and reporters from Houston came to Conroe and asked what had happened, the old sheriff of Montgomery County shrugged and told them he knew nothing. “I turned my back for a moment,” he said, “and when I looked back, the negro was tied to a burning stake.”

The burning of Joe Winters in May 1922 is only one of a series of occasions on which a sheriff of Montgomery County, together with the rest of the county’s leaders, have “turned their backs for a moment”.

In the wake of the Clarence Brandley case, in which judges and other officials in the county have been accused of conspiring to send an innocent black man to his death, research into the county’s past has disclosed ten separate incidents – spanning nearly a century from December 1885 to December 1973 – when young black men have been accused of crimes, often with white women as victims, and have then been murdered with the apparent consent of judges and officials in Montgomery County.

Brandley was sentenced to death in February 1981 for the rape and murder of a 16-year-old white girl in Conroe. In October 1987, a visiting judge reviewed the case and concluded that Brandley was innocent, that two named white men had committed the crime, and that the trial judge, the former District Attorney, the District Clerk and a Texas Ranger had all lied on oath in their efforts to keep Brandley on Death Row. But Montgomery County officials continue to insist that Brandley must die.

The earlier incidents, despite the spread of time, are linked by common threads: all the victims were black; all the attackers were white; and in each case county officials who were supposed to ensure that justice was done, consented to the murders. In some of the incidents, the officials not only consented but actively participated.

In the earliest case, on December 19 1885, a 19-year-old black man named Bennett Jackson, who was accused of breaking into a prominent white man’s house and attacking his wife and children, was killed at a lynching picnic in the courthouse square of Montgomery town. The event was forecast 48 hours earlier in the Houston Post and yet it was not impeded by any law enforcement agency. It was delayed for a day as a mark of respect for the presiding judge, Judge Masterson, who left town to permit the picnic to take place. According to the next day’s Houston Post, it was ‘the leading citizens of the county’ who then personally killed Jackson outside the courthouse and in front of a large crowd.

The officials who consented to Bennett Jackson’s murder, like those in the Brandley case and in a number of other earlier incidents, enjoyed widespread support from the people of Montgomery County for their actions.

Tom Payne was arrested and accused of robbing a white man in Conroe in February 1927. The dead man’s friends led a mob to the courthouse square and demanded that the sheriff hand over his prisoner. The sheriff refused and told two deputies to take Payne out of town to Huntsville Jail. However, he allowed news of Payne’s departure to leak out of his office and he ordered the deputies not to shoot if they were challenged by anyone.

Driving through the outskirts of town, the deputies found their route blocked by a group of men. They immediately obeyed the sheriff’s orders and handed over their prisoner, who was taken away and hanged from a tree. The sheriff later explained that, even though he had spoken with the mob’s leaders earlier in the day, he was unable to identify any of them. He suggested that they might have been strangers passing through town. He was re-elected.

Andrew McGehee, aged 19, was shot dead by a mob in Willis, near Conroe,  in May 1887. He was in the marshall’s custody at the time, accused of shooting a white man. The mob had been waiting around for hours, reaching through his cell window to tell him they were going to kill him, but it was not until the marshall decided to go home that they were able to break in and shoot McGehee to death where he lay in his chains.

In the case which preceded the Brandley controversy, an 18-year-old black man named Greg Steele, who had been arrested after a bar-room scuffle, was shot dead by a police officer in Montgomery County courthouse in Conroe two days before Christmas in 1973. His family believed he was killed because he was dating a white girl and had ignored threats and orders to stop seeing her. The officer who shot him, Darwin Bryant, was put on trial.

Officer Bryant said he shot Steele because the teenager attacked him with a knife in an interview room and cut his face. The officer could not explain why there was no blood on his face, nor how the knife could have escaped the police search when Steele was arrested, nor why there was no blood on the knife, nor why all three bullets which hit Steele entered through his back. Still, the officer was found Not Guilty. He was subsequently jailed for armed bank robbery.

The death of Greg Steele points to the most volatile common element in the Montgomery County incidents: Steele, like Brandley and seven of the other lynching victims, was accused of having some form of sexual relationship with a white woman.

Joe Winters was burned alive in the courthouse square after a young white girl accused him of raping her. Black people in Conroe who remember the incident insist that Winters was dating the girl and that she betrayed him when they were caught together in the woods by a white man. Winters was never given a chance to put his side of the story.

Only a month later, on June 23 1922, Warren Lewis, a mentally retarded field hand, aged 18, was hanged by another Montgomery County mob who accused him of trying to assault a white woman. His family said his only crime was that he went to the woman’s well to get some water and was too simple-minded to foresee the consequences. The sheriff of Montgomery County claimed that by the time he arrived at the scene, it was too late to save Lewis’ life.

In the same way, the sheriff claimed he tried to save James Kinder and Alf Riley when they were cornered by a crowd in Magnolia, Montgomery County on March 17 1908 and accused of trying to press themselves upon a white girl in the town. The sheriff said that by the time he arrived at the scene, it was too late and both men had already been shot to death in the street.

Within weeks, two young black men died in similar but separate incidents in Conroe, when white women living alone reported that a prowler had been trying to enter their homes. One man whose name has been lost in history was shot through the head and the other, a nineteen-year-old named Clem Scott, was seized by a group of white men who hauled him into the courthouse square and hanged him from an elm tree while Sheriff Maben Anderson and his deputies took no action to stop them. The next day, a Justice of the Peace, C.T. Darby, held an inquest and declared that Scott had been “hung by the neck with a rope in the hands of persons unknown.” The sheriff was subsequently re-elected to his position, and Justice of the Peace Darby went on to become Mayor of Conroe.

One of the Montgomery County killings achieved a brief national notoriety in June 1941. Bob White, aged 27, a black plantation worker, was accused of raping a white woman in Livingston, Polk County. The woman, Ruby Cochran, was the wife of a wealthy plantation owner, Dude Cochran, whose family was one of the most powerful in the county.

White was quickly tried and sentenced to death, but the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin overturned his conviction because of the weight of prejudice at his trial in Livingston. White was tried a second time, in Conroe, where an all-white Montgomery County jury again convicted him and sentenced him to die. This time, the court in Austin accepted the conviction only to see it overturned by the US Supreme Court in Washington DC.

The Supreme Court reviewed evidence that White was one of 16 black men who had been rounded up by the Cochran family and that Texas Rangers had repeatedly taken him out of the county jail and driven him into the woods where they had beaten him until his shirt was ripped to tatters, and that he had then confessed in a statement which was written for him, which he was unable to read and which contained factual errors.

On June 11 1941, White faced trial for a third time, in Montgomery County Courthouse in Conroe. Shortly after noon on the first day, the judge called a brief recess. Dude Cochran, whose wife was preparing to give evidence of her rape for the third time, stepped quietly forward, slipped through the bar at the front of the court, walked up behind Bob White and shot him through the back of the head. He was dead before his body hit the ground.

Cochran surrendered to the sheriff and, within hours, he was released on a $500 bail bond. A week later, he was tried for murder. The District Attorney who was supposed to be prosecuting him told the jury: “If I were going into that jury room, I wouldn’t hesitate. I wouldn’t stand back a minute in writing a verdict of Not Guilty.” The all-white jury agreed and set the white farmer free.

The next day, the Houston Post reported: “Cochran, a slight sun-tanned man wearing a tan business suit and high-heeled cowboy boots, was unable to leave the courtroom for nearly 15 minutes after his acquittal. Spectators formed in lines to pass behind the rail and shake hands with him, some still cheering and whistling.”

That District Attorney, W.C `Cleo’ McLain, was later re-elected to his position and still practises law in Conroe. The official who wrote White’s confession, Ernest Coker, and who claimed not to have seen a mark on his body later became a district judge. His son, Lynn, was one of the judges who condemned Clarence Brandley.

In the Brandley case, Judge Perry Pickett, the visiting judge who reviewed the case, found that officials at Montgomery County courthouse in Conroe “fostered a tone of white against black”, that a Conroe police officer told Brandley he was elected as prime suspect because “you’re the nigger”, that the Montgomery County sheriff and the District Attorney called Brandley “a little nigger”, and that the District Clerk had arranged for Brandley to be executed on her birthday as a gift to her from the courthouse.

But eighteen months after his ruling, all the Montgomery county officials who were exposed as liars by Judge Pickett still enjoy their positions of power in Conroe. Two of them are judges, who were found to have plotted against Brandley and to have lied on oath and who are the subject of formal complaints to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, yet neither of them has been approached by the commission for an explanation.

Judge Pickett said Brandley should have a new trial. He found that Brandley was the innocent victim of racism and added that his was the most shocking case he had encountered in 30 years as a judge. “The continued incarceration of Clarence Brandley under these circumstances is an affront to the basic notions of fairness and justice,” he wrote.

But eighteen months later, Brandley is still on Death Row. Montgomery County officials still call for his execution. The Court of Criminal Appeals has still not decided whether or not he should have a new trial.

Brandley’s family complain that the authorities have turned their backs on the case.