Lawyer with Sanford roots changed history

Today, Feb. 12, in Sanford history, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black announces the Court’s unanimous decision to save 4 black men from the death penalty in Florida. The year is 1940.

Simuel Decatur McGill, credit: Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida

This was clearly an important decision for the 4 men and their families. However, the case – Chambers v. Florida – is significant well beyond those who were directly involved. For the first time the Court declared that local and state courts must abide by the due process clause of the 14th amendment.

The lawyer who successfully argued the case was from Sanford, Simuel Decatur McGill.

Born April 23, 1877 in Quincy, McGill moved as a young child with his mother and step-father, Rev. A.E. Irvin, to a house at the southwest corner of 8th Street and Hickory Avenue in the Georgetown neighborhood. The original house no longer exists. Irvin owned a small orange grove, 5 head of cattle and shoe repair shop on Sanford Ave.

I don’t know much about McGill’s childhood. He would eventually earn a degree at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville before graduating from Boston University School of Law in 1908. He returned to Jacksonville and became the first black man licensed to practice law in Florida.

McGill quickly found success as a corporate attorney, which provided him financial stability to take on complex civil-rights related criminal cases.

In fact, long before the world heard of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice, McGill was the preminent civil rights attorney in the nation. According to a June 1940 issue of “The Crisis,” the offical publication of the NAACP, McGill “… had 51 written opinions from the Florida Supreme Court, resulting in over half reversals.”

In his book “Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944,” author John Clay Smith notes that “… McGill appeared in more cases before a state supreme court then any other black lawyer.”

It was in this context that McGill came to represent Izell Chambers, Jack Williamson, Charlie Davis and Walter Woodward (some documents list “Woodard” as the correct spelling), the petitioners in the Chambers case.

On May 13, 1933 in Pompono Beach, Robert Darsey, an elderly white man, was robbed and murdered. Police arrested 40 to 50 black men without warrants, and held them in the Broward County jail for 6 days as a mob of angry white residents threatened to lynch the men. Those arrested weren’t allowed to see their families or have an attorney present during seemingly endless day-and-night questioning by police. The men were also never advised of their 5th Amendment right to remain silent.

By the night of May 20, police had narrowed their focus to Chambers, Williamson, Davis and Woodward. Police seperated the 4 and began an all-night interogation, with as many as 10 officers questioning each man. After 12 hours, Woodward finally “confessed.” Over the next 12 hours, police gained “confessions” from the other 3 men.

An all white jury convicted the men and sentenced them to die in the electric chair.

McGill was not the trail lawyer in the case. As with many of the civil rights cases he took on, McGill focused on the appellate courts. Over the next six years, McGill would argue the men were wrongly convicted. The case made its way to the Florida Supreme Court multiple times and would be remanded back to the local courts.

Finally in late 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Chambers case, and oral arguments were heard on Jan. 4, 1940.

McGill argued that arrest without warrants, 6 days and nights of interrogation and no opportunity to consult an attorney violated the due process clause of the 14th amendment. It was a novel defense at the time. The courts had never before applied the 14th amendment to state cases.

The State’s Attorneys argued the confessions were voluntary, and that eliminating the interrogation methods used would unduly hamper police investigations.

Thirty-nine days later Justice Hugo Black read the decision to overturn the convictions and establish that due process was required in all cases.

Beyond the legal significance and the fact that 4 men’s lives were spared, the moment was dripping with symbolism. February 12 is Abraham Lincoln‘s birthday, and the justice who wrote and delivered the unanimous opinion, Hugo Black, was a former member of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

The story doesn’t end there. Anyone who has watched a police drama on TV knows exactly what their rights are:

The right to an attorney during police interrogation (Escobedo v. Illinois), even if you can’t afford one (Gideon v. Wainwright); and the right to remain silent (Miranda v. Arizona).

Together these are the Miranda rights. Each of those cases was decided using the precedent established in the Chambers case. McGill’s skillful arguments before the Supreme Court is the reason Miranda exists, plain and simple.

At least once a week I drive by the property at 8th Street and Hickory Avenue. I think about the accomplishments of the kid who grew up there some 140 years ago, and I swell up with hometown pride.

Every. Single. Time.