Houston Clemency Petition-Restore the 24th!

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On 27 October 2020 at the South Texas College of Law Houston, a petition [pdf 10mb] was presented to the Army General Counsel asking the Secretary of the Army to order the issuance of honorable discharges for all soldiers assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment who were convicted by General Courts-Martial in United States v. Nesbit, et al., United States v. Washington, et al., and United States v. Tillman, et al., in 1917 and 1918, and discharged from the Army under less than honorable conditions.

As part of a joint effort with the Houston chapter of the NAACP, students from STCL Houston’s Actual Innocence Clinic worked to research the three courts-martial and all 110 soldiers from this historic African-American “Buffalo Soldier” regiment. Although not endorsing any outcome, the Law Department at the United States Military Academy at West Point also contributed to the research effort. The STCL Houston special library collection contains the largest digitized records collection related to these courts-martial and the events in Houston on 23 August 1917.

Assigned to Houston, Texas in the summer of 1917, these soldiers encountered a hostile environment defined by virulent Jim Crow racism. They were met with racist insults and physical abuse by a local population that refused to recognize their status as soldiers of the U.S. Army. After several incidents of abuse and mistreatment by Houston police officers, on the night of August 23rd something triggered a belief in the unit that a white mob was about to attack their camp. This led members of the battalion to arm themselves and march out of Camp Logan under the leadership of a senior non-commissioned officer to confront what they believed was a hostile threat. What ensued was a night of violent confrontations between the soldiers and members of the Houston Police Department and local civilians, with the tragic consequence of 16 lives lost and 11 persons wounded.

In one of the saddest incidents in the long and distinguished history of the U.S. Army, the three ensuing trials resulted in the conviction and punishment of 110 soldiers from this famous regiment. These men served in the 24th Infantry Regiment, one of the four African-American regiments in what was then a racially segregated army; nonetheless, their devotion to the nation and pride in service was uncompromising. Indeed, many of these soldiers served honorably and courageously at San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War; in the Philippines during the insurrection; and with General John J. Pershing during the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa.

The Army’s reaction to the violence  in Houston was swift. After a hasty investigation, those soldiers accused of participating in the incident were brought to Fort Sam Houston for trial by General Courts-Martial on a range of offenses including mutiny and murder. The first court-martial tried 63 defendants – the largest single criminal trial in American history. These defendants were represented by one Army officer who was neither a licensed attorney nor a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The outcome was perhaps predictable: 58 of the soldiers were convicted and 13 were sentenced to death. Because the United States had declared war on Germany earlier that year, the Articles of War permitted (but did not mandate) execution of sentence without any external judicial review. These men were hung within two weeks of the sentence, in the largest mass execution of American soldiers in our nation’s history. Two subsequent trials resulted in the conviction of 52 more soldiers and 16 additional death sentences. Because, however, The Judge Advocate General was so appalled by the first round of executions without legal review, he implemented a directive requiring War Department review of adjudged death sentences. As a result of this review, and intervention by the Secretary of War with President Wilson, 10 of these death sentences were commuted to life in prison.

An in-depth review of the three trials discloses significant violations of military law in the investigation and prosecution of the cases. Although a true assessment of the effect of these faults on the fairness of the trial is difficult to fully resolve more than one hundred years later, their existence raises grave doubts that justice or fairness were achieved in the trials. These failures fall into three categories: (1) processes that, although technically meeting the requirement of military law in 1917, nonetheless produce a visceral conclusion that justice failed, most notably the inherent prejudice resulting from a single defense representative with minimal prior court-martial experience representing such a large number of defendants and the inherent conflict of interest that situation imposed; (2) defects that arise from violations of the laws governing courts-martial by the prosecution; and (3) fundamental flaws that followed the courts-martial—due process flaws arising from the denial of fair consideration of the soldiers’ clemency petitions to which they were entitled under law and regulation, and the Army’s failure to seek complete accountability for the events in Houston.

The National Institute of Military Justice believes that upgrading all 110 soldiers’ discharges to honorable characterization is an appropriate and long overdue first step. The Army should review this matter through the lens of its values, which have been enduring and founded upon honor, respect, integrity, and loyalty. True justice in this case would involve the modern Army’s recognition of the injustices that tainted these courts-martial and an acknowledgement that the Army itself did not uphold the standards of justice to which all soldiers are entitled by American military law. The Army has the ability to do justice and restore these soldiers to the colors that they served; they deserve no less.

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