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Berry Lawson Case (1938)

On March 26, 1938, Berry Lawson, a twenty-seven-year-old African American waiter staying at the Mt. Fuji Hotel located on Yesler Way in downtown Seattle, Washington, was reportedly asleep in a chair in the hotel lobby. He was spotted by three Seattle Police Department officers, who approached Lawson to arrest him for loitering. An altercation ensued, and ninety minutes later, Lawson was pronounced dead at City Emergency Hospital with a fractured skull. According to the Seattle Times, the three officers, Patrolmen F.H. Paschal, W.F. Stevenson, and P.L. Whalen, “declared Lawson apparently was under the influence of a stimulant and broke away from them and plunged headlong down a flight of stairs.”

Almost immediately, local African American leaders began asking questions. Although an autopsy performed by King County Coroner Otto Mittlestadt found “several internal head injuries, a broken nose, and several bruises” and no evidence that Lawson was intoxicated, the coroner cleared the three officers of any wrongdoing. Days later, a delegation led by Rev. Fred Hughes, pastor at First AME Church; Rev. T.M. Davis, pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church; and newspaper publisher John O. Lewis met with Police Chief William Sears. In addition, Seattle Urban League executive secretary Joseph Sylvester Jackson organized a committee of community representatives to hold “protest meetings” with Mayor-elect Arthur Langlie. Soon after, the city announced it would conduct an official investigation into Lawson’s death.

On April 8, Paschal, Stevenson, and Whalen were charged with second-degree murder in the death of Berry Lawson. They surrendered at the prosecuting attorney’s office and were held in lieu of $5,000 bail. Chief Sears suspended all three without pay and then fired them one month later. Meanwhile, Paschal, Stevenson, and Whalen made claims in the newspaper, suggesting that the real reason behind their prosecution was connected to something else. Stevenson stated, “I know the white slave interests are out to get us for our

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