Berry Lawson Case: Police Officers Held Accountable for Police Brutality (1938)

Written by Jae Jones

The Berry Lawson Case was a major police brutality case that happened during 1938 in pre-World War II Seattle. Lawson, a black man who worked as a waiter, had been arrested by Seattle police officers for sleeping in a chair at the Mt. Fuji Hotel. Lawson resisted the arrest and was killed as a result.

Witnesses claimed that three police officers pushed Lawson down a flight of stairs. The police officers were cleared of wrongdoing, however, the Seattle NAACP branch challenged the decision and wanted the three police officers, Patrick Whalen, W.F. Stevenson, and Fred Paschall, to be charged.

The NAACP started their investigation and found Travis Downs, a white hairdresser who fled town to head to Portland after witnessing what had taken place. The NAACP convinced Downs to come back to Seattle to testify as to what really took place. Downs returned and told his version of that incident, which led the three officers to be found guilty of second-degree murder. All three men were dismissed from the police force.

On June 10, 1938, the police officers were convicted of manslaughter and each sentenced to 20 years in prison. In January 1939, the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdicts, but four months later, the Governor granted a pardon to two of the officers; in December 1939, the third officer was pardoned as well.

Although the police officers did not serve their time, the case was recognized because as the first time both in Seattle and in the nation as a whole in which police officers were held accountable for their brutality against black citizens.



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About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

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