Wisdom and Biases of the Ages Revealed in an Old Case

This afternoon I was researching an issue involving a very modern trend: the trafficking of medical marijuana from states where it is legal to those where it is not. As I searched for case law to help my client, I stumbled upon a Colorado case from 1942, Payne v. People. It is the kind of case that is a marvel to read. Its language is antiquated. It openly and unabashedly projects the prejudice and racism of our past. And, in the end, it shows that certain principles of justice are so powerful that they cannot be suppressed. Wanda Lee Payne was about the least likely person to be treated justly by the criminal justice system in Colorado in the early 1940s. She was 22 years old, she was black, she was a prostitute, and she was charged with killing a white man. The allegation was that Wanda lured Mr. Mott, a white man, into an alley to have sex. Once Mott was in the alley, he was beaten to death and robbed of his money ($5.00) and his watch by Wanda’s boyfriend/pimp and another man, both of whom were black. Afterward, Wanda and the two other men split the money and Wanda destroyed the watch to conceal the crime. Wanda’s co-defendants pled guilty and were sentenced to life. Wanda elected to go to trial. She testified on her own behalf. She said she knew nothing about the plan to rob or kill the victim, and that she was merely present during the incident. Her testimony was contradicted by almost all the other evidence in the case. Wanda appealed her conviction. At her trial, she had asked for the jury to be told that to find her guilty it must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that she led the victim into the alley so that he could be robbed. The judge refused to give the “beyond a reasonable doubt” instruction. Wanda’s conviction was unanimously reversed by the Colorado Supreme Court. In prose far more eloquent than found in most judicial decisions written today, the Court affirms both the racism of the era and the moral imperative of our criminal justice system: Every person accused of a crime deserves a fair trial. Though the Court does not hesitate to disparage the word of a black prostitute, it cannot deny the injustice of her case: A white man has been killed in the perpetration of a robbery. Three negroes are charged. Two admit conspiracy to rob and robbery. The third, a woman of twenty-two admits membership in the world’s oldest and most disreputable profession; that she is the ‘moll’ of one of the perpetrators; that she was with them and their victim shortly before the assault; that she inveigled deceased into a dark alley where he was attacked; that she was given money which may have been taken from him in the perpetration of the crime; that she helped destroy evidence; and that she knows both highwaymen intimately. As a defense she says she was no party to the conspiracy to rob and had never heard of it; that she followed the eventual victim, conversed with him, led him into the alley and received money from him, solely in the prosecution of her usual vocation; that the additional money she received from her paramour may or may not have been proceeds of the robbery, since he frequently gave her money; that after she learned of the victim’s death she helped destroy evidence as an act of loyalty to her friends. These admissions invoke every instinct of decency in the breasts of jurors and arouse every latent prejudice born of those instincts. Her life hangs on this slender thread. However loudly we may proclaim her evidence ridiculous and perjured and avouch its impotence to overturn the stubborn facts above recited, we can not say it is not true. That is not our function. Neither can we say a jury would not believe it, or at least give it sufficient credence to raise a reasonable doubt and so require her acquittal. Juries sometimes to turn stange verdicts; inexplicable to trained and experienced lawyers and judges; but the strangest thing about them is that time occasionally places upon them the stamp of wisdom and truth. That is why we have jury trials. In any event the law, which makes every provision for the protection of even possible innocence, has neither overlooked such a situation as here confronts us nor issued its mandate in equivocal language. No matter how improbable or unreasonable the contention, defendant was entitled to an appropriate instruction upon the hypothesis that it might be true. The Court clearly did not believe Wanda. The Court’s animus toward her seems to be heavily influenced by her race and profession, which are cited regularly with disdain in the opinion. Yet, the Court could not deny the injustice done to her by the trial court. I don’t know what happened next. I suspect was retried, convicted, and spent many miserable years in prison. I hope that for a few moments after she learned that her conviction had been overturned she felt some joy in seeing that justice had prevailed. I’m not blind to the fact that people like Wanda are still treated unfairly by the judicial system and by society in general. Here in Rapid City, South Dakota, where I practice, a city councilman recently told a young, black woman reporter that he hoped she’d be deported back to Kenya with President Obama. He is still in office and probably will remain so. Still, attitudes have improved greatly since the 1940s in regard to race and gender equality. And, notwithstanding the injustices that play out in courtrooms every day, I believe that most people within the system remain committed to protecting the fundamental principle that no person should be convicted of a crime until the State meets its burden of proving the crime beyond any reasonable doubt. Its folks like Wanda, who keep up the good fight and appeal wrongful decisions even though the victory is likely to be pyrrhic, that remind us of how important these principles are.