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Motown Justice

The Algiers Motel Incident

by John Hersey
Knopf, 394 pp., $5.95

The Torture of Mothers

by Truman Nelson
Beacon, 121 pp., $4.95

About midnight of July 25, 1967, during the period of racial tension in Detroit usually referred to as a summer riot, three young men—Carl Cooper, Auburey Pollard, and Fred Temple, were shot to death at close range in the Algiers Motel, on Woodward Avenue—a modern place with TV, swimming pool, and room phones too plastic to seem an appropriate scene for tragedy. All three victims were, of course, Negro. They were among a group of friends who were being interrogated—if the word may be used in so broad a sense—by an aggregate of Detroit police, Michigan State Troopers, National Guardsmen, and private guards who had been directed to the scene. The commander of the National Guard detachment who had been instructed to “protect the building” of the Great Lakes Mutual Life Insurance Company a block north of the Algiers “from any kind of disturbance” had heard shots, and immediately telephoned his “high commander” that “we were being fired upon.” According to two of the policemen present in the motel, their dispatcher had announced “Army under heavy fire” as he gave them their orders.

So far as any investigator has been able to discover, the shots heard were from a starting-pistol used to begin track events, which the young men were playing with, mocking the hyperactivity of the police during the early stages of the riot. Even this pistol has not been recovered; and the survivors have given conflicting testimony about its use; it would, in any case, have been incapable of firing a bullet. All it could be used for is to signal the start of an event, or series of events.

The exact circumstances of Mr. Cooper’s slaying—he was the first—are still unclear; his body was found in a unit across the hall from the motel room in which Mr. Pollard and Mr. Temple died. Patrolmen Ronald August was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder of Auburey Pollard. He had himself identified Pollard from a photograph as a man he had killed in a struggle over a shotgun the Patrolman had brought into the motel; and National Guard Warrant Officer Theodore Thomas, who had heard the putative sniper fire and turned in the alarm, had identified August as Pollard’s killer. On rather less clear-cut evidence Patrolman Robert Paille was identified as having shot Fred Temple and was charged with his murder. The two policemen were arraigned and taken to jail: “‘They held us,’ Paille, who in his time on the force had taken a good number of citizens to jail, told me, ‘for one night in the county prison. It was the most awkward night of my life. During that time there, I tell you, it was really something. We were confined to an area there, isolated, and—we were both together—and jeez, it was, you know, it was almost unbreathable in that place, it was closed and no windows or anything. It was hot in there, it was in the summertime, you see, and all night there you couldn’t sleep, because, you know, it was just a bumpy little old mattress and everything else there, you know…. Unbearable!

‘They held us for one night in the jail, and then the next day we went back to court, and they had looked into their logs and so forth there and found that on previous occasions they had released prisoners for this charge, murder, that they had us on at the time, and then they released us from that day on, on a bond, five-thousand-dollar bond, two sureties.”’

ON AUGUST 14, in Recorder’s Court, where criminal complaints are first heard in Detroit, Judge Robert E. DeMascio dismissed the complaint that had caused Patrolman Paille such an uncomfortable night. He threw out the statements made by Paille and August when first interrogated, on the grounds that the two police officers had not been informed of their constitutional rights—though, as police officers, it was of course their responsibility to inform suspects of just these rights every day. This left no evidence on which to proceed against Paille on the murder charge. The charge against Patrolman August was sustained, but has not yet been brought to trial. His jeopardy does not appear to be excessive. As Judge DeMascio noted, in his statement continuing the charge, “On the other hand, it is totally unlike defendant August.”

PATROLMAN PAILLE was not wholly out of jeopardy either. The Negro community in Detroit having responded very critically to Judge DeMascio’s handling of the complaint, Wayne County Prosecutor William L. Cahalan brought a new charge against him, along with Melvin Dismukes—a Negro private guard already under indictment for taking part in the beatings that preceded the slayings at the Algiers—and David Senak, the third Detroit policeman who had taken part in these events, and who had not previously been charged in connection with them. The new charge, “Conspiracy to commit a legal act in an illegal manner”—a mild enough way to refer to three slayings and many more beatings—led to the arrest of the three defendants on August 23. On September 16, Prosecutor Cahalan also appealed Judge DeMascio’s decision to dismiss the charges against Paille. The appeal went back to Recorder’s Court—this time to the bench of Judge Geraldine Bledsoe Ford—a Negro, as it happens.

On December 1, the Senior Judge of Recorder’s Court, Frank G. Schemanske, dismissed even the conspiracy charge for lack of evidence; Cahalan again appealed. This appeal was denied by a fourth Recorder’s Court judge Gerald W. Groat, on February 20, 1968. On March 28, Judge Ford, having sat in judgment on the issue for more than six months:

ordered Judge DeMascio to reopen the case and examine Lieutenant Hallmark, the man to whom August and Paille confessed. Such an examination would probably have the effect of causing Paille to be indicted for murder after all. [Defense] attorney Lippitt at once appealed on Paille’s behalf, questioning the legality of one Recorder’s Court judge’s reviewing a decision of another Recorder’s Court judge—a procedure to which Mr. Lippitt had naturally not objected when Groat had reviewed Schemanske and agreed with him.

There, so far as the local authorities were concerned, the matter would have rested, with only August—apparently the quietest and least aggressive of the three police officers—and Dismukes, the only Negro defendant, facing charges, at least until the constitutional issue about the Recorder’s Court hearing its own appeals had been resolved. Except for pressure from Congressman John Conyers, Jr.—himself Negro—it is possible that no action at all would have been taken. There is no record that the patrolmen at the Algiers even reported to their headquarters that anyone—snipers or not—had been killed at the Algiers Motel. The bodies were found by Mr. Charles Hendrix, the Negro owner of the private guard firm retained by the Algiers Motel, who notified the morgue, which in turn notified the Homicide Bureau. The only individual implicated in the entire series of events who has yet been tried was also the only Negro. Melvin Dismukes was brought to trial on a charge of Felonious Assault on May 7, before Recorder’s Court Judge Robert J. Colombo, and an all-white jury, which, perhaps appreciating his somewhat inappropriate role in the drama, deliberated thirteen minutes and acquitted him.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, however, finally entered the case, just as another summer was about to begin. On May 3, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan announced that an indictment for conspiracy to deny civil rights to Auburey Pollard, Fred Temple, Lee Forsythe, Cleveland Reed, Roderick Davis, James Sortor, Robert Lee Greene, Julia Ann Hysell, Karen Malloy, and Michael Clark, had been returned against August, Dismukes, Paille, and Senak. The omission of Carl Cooper’s name suggests that even the grand jury had not been able to reconstruct a plausible hypothesis to account for his slaying. Messrs. Forsythe, Reed, Davis, Sortor, and Clark, friends of the slain youths, were with them at the Algiers, but escaped being shot, though they were beaten. Miss Hysell and Miss Malloy were guests in the Motel who, having met the young men there earlier, had come to their rooms to share a meal of hot dogs with them because they were hungry and the curfew prevented their going out to a café for food. Whether they shared anything more—and no evidence has been presented that they did—the invading aggregate of enforcement officials apparently assumed that they had. Witnesses agree that the girls were abused, their clothes torn; and then forced to strip to their panties in order to shame them for fraternizing with black men. The experience of Robert Lee Greene, a slightly older man and a Vietnam war veteran who was staying in the motel when it was attacked by the forces of law and order, as related to Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Jesse B.Eggleston, rather vividly conveys the tone of the proceedings:

Greene was then called in and saw that Julie was bleeding about the forehead, a mattress on the floor was bloody, and Karen’s clothing had been torn. Greene was questioned as to his relationship to the girls.”

He started asking questions…and asked whether I had intercourse with any of the girls. I told him, ‘No’. Then he asked me what I was doing there. I told him, ‘I just got discharged, I came here looking for a job. I arrived here Friday.’ And told him what was what, the reason I was there. Then he said, ‘Okay,’ and told me to move out. Prior to me going out, I noticed one of the girls’ clothes was ripped…. This warrant officer, he spoke up then. I told him that I’d like to go back in the service. He told me, ‘We don’t need niggers in the Army, like you’…So I didn’t say any more, and I received another blow. And I was struck behind the head…This was a rifle butt.”

Then, according to an account given to Hersey by Charles Moore, a policeman approached Greene “and began to rant at the black man who had been discovered with two white girls in his bedroom… The officer said to Greene, ‘You sure you’re not one of these blackass nigger pimps?’ ”

Greene, an ex-paratrooper, a veteran of Vietnam, reached in a pocket and pulled out papers warranting his honorable discharge, and held them up for the officer to see. “I just got out of the Service,” he said.

The officer hit him and said, “We’re going to kill all you blackass nigger pimps and throw you in the river. We’re going to fill up the Detroit River with all you pimps and whores.”

THE REMAINING INDIVIDUAL named in the Federal indictment, accused Patrolman David Senak, who had kept calm under questioning and had not been charged with murder along with August and Paille, is by far the most interesting of the police present at the Algiers. At twenty-four, the youngest of the three—Patrolmen Paille and August were about thirty—he alone could be characterized as a really zealous policeman. “I’m a police officer,” Hersey quotes him as saying, “and they could fire me, and ten years from now you could ask me and I’d still be a police officer, whether I’m fired or not. But August I don’t think is. I think he’s just a nice family-type fellow…. Just a general nice guy.”

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