Ft. Lawton Convictions Overturned Six Decades Later

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In 1944, an Italian prisoner of war was lynched in a riot at Fort Lawton in Seattle, Washington. Forty three black soldiers were charged in the incident, and 28 of them were convicted. Now, more than 60 years later, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records has overturned the convictions after the military found major issues with the soldiers' court martial. Farai Chideya speaks with Howard Cooley, an attorney with the law firm Patrick Henry. It represented the family of Booker Townsell, one of the soldiers charged in the case.


This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. In 1944, an Italian prisoner of war was lynched in a riot. It took place at Fort Lawton in Seattle, Washington. Forty-three black soldiers were charged in the incident; 28 of them were convicted. More than 60 years later, the Army Board of Correction overturned the convictions. The military found major issues with the soldiers' court martial. Joining us today is Howard Cooley. He's an attorney with the law firm Patrick Henry. The firm represented the family of Booker Townsell, one of the soldiers charged in the case. Thank you for joining me.

Mr. HOWARD COOLEY (Attorney, Patrick Henry Law Firm): Thank you, and thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So tell us about Booker Townsell. Who was he, and what had he been through before and after the court martial?

Mr. COOLEY: He was a young man who was drafted in World War II, like so many other people. Seems to have had a - not a - nothing remarkable about his background, from what I'm able to understand. And - but he did become quite remarkable during World War II because he became a prisoner - he had to guard some prisoners of war, some Italian prisoners of war. And the riot broke out and then he, as a result of that, he was convicted, he was dismissed from the service with adverse honors.

And then, from that point, he had a great change in his life. Because with that adverse discharge, dishonorable discharge, he wasn't able to secure the kinds of benefits that he wanted to, and he had to overcome that. And I think the great story of his life is what he did afterwards, for the duration of his life and leading his family. He was an ordinary person under remarkable circumstances.

CHIDEYA: Now unfortunately, he passed away in 1984. So how did you get involved with the case?

Mr. COOLEY: Well, it all goes back to Jack Hamann, who is an author who wrote the book. He did some research, he found out, he's from the Seattle-Fort Lawton area. Discovered there was something very unusual in terms of the courts martial, and then sought to investigate the matter. And when he did, he uncovered, essentially, just a tremendous miscarriage of justice, very well documented. He researched it, he published the book.

And at that time, the family members came forward as he did more and more research in terms of trying to find and locate the individuals. And from there, I became involved when the - last September, when Congressman McDermott's office asked me to assist some of the individuals with their cases before the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. And that's how I, for example, got to know the Townsell family.

CHIDEYA: What was supposed to have happened, or presumed to have happened, when these men were court martialed? What crime were they court martialed for? And what actually happened, what did we find out about that?

Mr. COOLEY: He becomes a pawn in international intrigue. There's a riot that goes on and the police believed - the military police believed that the African-Americans were involved - instigated the riot. And then as a result, killed one of the Italian soldiers. We have, here we are, we have an Italian prisoner of war who's now dead, maltreated, and the government decided it needed to show the rest of the world, particularly the Axis powers in Europe, that it would not - that is, the United States - would not tolerate this kind of misconduct and would deal with it swiftly, very swiftly.

And that's what happened. These individuals were all charged en masse, tried en masse. They didn't even have - the defense lawyers that they had didn't even get an opportunity to know all of the individuals, and the trial just went on, and then they were convicted. What Jack Hamann unearthed was that Leon Jaworsky, the great prosecutor in the Watergate matter, was - had some evidence that was potentially exculpatory. That tended to show that some of the white military police were involved in this matter, actually instigated it, knew that something was going to happen, didn't stop it, let it go on and were - shared in liability here. Nothing happened to them.

And this evidence and this information was suppressed, in this instance, a shared culpability. Because if you have a duty and a responsibility, if a police officer sees someone being beaten or something happening and the police officer turns a blind eye, then the officer then shares some liability with regard to what happens.

CHIDEYA: Now, there are only two surviving soldiers left as part of this case. What kind of compensation has the military given them so far for post-exoneration?

Mr. COOLEY: The persons for whom the cases have been decided, and Mr. Snow, his case has been decided and it has been very well-publicized, the Townsell case. The Army does not publish or give a list of the other cases that have been decided, so I don't know the exact number. But I don't think it's been very many. I doubt it's been five or so decided.

For some of those individuals, the standard relief for most of them would include - the Army would say all right, you were taken off of active duty too soon, so we're going to reverse your dishonorable discharge, and we are going to put you back on active duty for the period of time that you were serving, that is, for the period, that enlistment period. So if that enlistment period had another six month to run or another seven months to run or whatever it was, they would then pay the individual for that. That's how Mr. Snow, and the Townsell family, I might add, received a check for $700 or so, or something of that nature, from the government. Now the bill that was submitted by Congressman...

CHIDEYA: Jim McDermott.

Mr. COOLEY: Congressman McDermott, thank you, was designed to pay interest on the amounts that the Board for Correction of Military Records determined should be awarded.

CHIDEYA: So what would you like to see, Mr. Cooley, happen from now on for the families of the soldiers who've passed away, for the ones who are still alive and just in general, for the record?

Mr. COOLEY: Well, I think that a letter of apology to the individuals from the secretary of the Army, particularly in those cases where there has not been a significant celebration. We had a great one for the Townsell family in January, January 19th. The assistant secretary of the Army was there, Congressman McDermott spoke. It was a tremendous program. But not everyone is going to be able to receive that kind of program and that kind of salute. And so I think a personal note from the secretary to those families would be appropriate. The other thing is, not all the family members know. Many people don't know that their father or their grandfather was a participant in this. And I think some meaningful public relations effort to ask those people to apply, because they have to apply to get relief. So I'd like to see that. I think that would be appropriate.

CHIDEYA: Well, Howard, thank you so much.

Mr. COOLEY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was attorney Howard Cooley of the law firm Patrick Henry. He represented the family of Booker Townsell in the case of black soldiers court martialed in 1944. He practices law in Annandale, Virginia, and is a retired Army colonel.

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