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Blacks on the witness stand in Georgia in 1962: The Unsworn Statement

The unsworn statement

Slaves in Georgia suffered indignities even in church.

Jay, I read your your twitter

I was very interested in the one picture you posted about how slaves collecting the offering in church had to have one hand behind their back to keep them from stealing.

Most jurors didn’t know about the unsworn statement”

When I was in Georgia in the Summer of 1963 and again in 1964 through 1966, there was something called the “unsworn statement.”  I don’t know if it exists anymore.  It stemmed from the days of slavery when you could not have a black person take the “great oath” as they were deemed incapable of adhering to it.  [1]  Even so, occasionally the white man needed black man’s court testimony; for example, when the black man was present when Captain Bob and Mr. John made a business deal but now argued over terms and the black man was present while he was serving them dinner.  So they put him on the stand and he told his story.  Cross examination was not allowed since he wasn’t under oath.
In modern times it was used by white attorneys to put black defendants on the stand to give a “lawsy, lawsy Mr. White Man, I sho is a bad n***** and sho am sorry for whut I done did.”  The equivalent of the “slow plea” today.

However, the attorney for whom I worked, C. B. King,  [3]used the unsworn statement for a very different purpose.  We would put a defendant on the stand who couldn’t withstand a good cross examination and that defendant would tell his story.  The DA was not allowed to cross-examine.  Most jurors didn’t know about the unsworn statement and felt that since the DA didn’t cross-examine it might just be the truth.  Hey, it was one of the very few ways that we could get an all-white jury (all juries were all “all-white juries” at that time) to believe a truthful African American client.

all juries were all “all-white juries” at that time

 

Dennis Roberts, Attorney at Law

370 Grand Ave., Suite 1 

Oakland, CA 94610-4892 

(510) 465-6363 (Phone)

(510) 465-7375 (Fax)

roberts_dennis@sbcglobal.net

http://www.TheOaklandCriminalLawyer.com

 

***

Reference notes:

[1].  Interestingly enough, Aboriginies in Australia have basically the same law at present:

Unsworn Statements and Traditionally Oriented Aborigines. Aborigines may be particularly disadvantaged in the courts either as defendants or as witnesses.[519] These difficulties may prevent an Aborigine adequately presenting his or her version of the facts to the court both in evidence in chief and in cross-examination. In particular, problems arise with cross examination through incomprehension of questions or reluctance to reject suggestions or propositions put by persons in authority.[520] The option of an unsworn statement may assist in resolving this problem. A Select Committee of the Legislative Council (SA) investigating these questions reported that:

The Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, supported by three Adelaide counsel … submitted … that a special case could be made out for Aboriginal defendants in particular for whom the unsworn statement ought to be retained. They referred to a number of judgments in which it had been recognised that Aboriginal persons faced special problems in relation to the administration of justice. In oral submissions to the Committee, the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement emphasised that, because of these particular difficulties, cross-examination was not necessarily a tool which could always be used effectively to establish veracity. Consequently the abolition of the unsworn statement would help neither the Aboriginal accused nor the interest of society as a whole.

[2] A slow plea happens when a defendant has a bench or “judge” trial, knowing he will be found guilty.  Facts are often agreed to before trial.  A “slow plea” trial is done just to preserve one or two issues for appeal.  Sometimes issues are waived if trial did not go forward. Often the judge will not order jail time to be served until after the appeal has been decided.  As a defendant is entitled to a jury (even if that defendant is black) a slow plea is the choice of the defendant.

[3] The hypertext links in CB and King are separate and distinct.  They lead to two separate authorities on him.

The first courthouse in the deep South was named after C.B. King: “The C.B.King United States Courthouse is located at the corner of West Broad Avenue and Washington Street in the original downtown section of Albany. It was named in 2000 for Chevene Bowers King, a pioneering African American attorney, civil rights leader, and politician in Georgia.” http://www.gamd.uscourts.gov/court-info/court-locations/newark

Addendum to fn [3] from Dennis:

“When I was invited to speak at the dedication I spoke about what an honor it was for the black community and what a great fighter against injustice and to ease the burdens of black folk. But then I paused and said “I wonder how Attorney King would feel knowing they applied his name to a building he referred to as a ‘Temple of Injustice’ “

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