Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
Family secrets. Every family has them. The words conjure up deep emotions that spring from the center of our souls. They evoke mysteries glimpsed in childhood, whispers and snippets of conversation our parents and aunts and uncles exchanged when they thought we couldn’t hear. The family secret is the ghost lurking in the den at Grandma’s house late at night, the fog glimpsed under the tree on a moonlit night. It keeps us awake, needing to know but seemingly never catching up to the truth.
What if the family secret is a murder…why was it kept secret for decades? What was the family seeking to hide?
What influences determine the outcome of a high-stakes murder trial? Is the verdict affected only by the facts of the case or are there deeper, more insidious forces at work? The race of the killer and the victim? The lifestyle of the deceased? The biases that the jurors bring into the jury box? And do the lawyers representing the state and the defense focus on such factors to get the result they want from the jury? What about the times and circumstances in which the murder occurred? Will the jury be swayed to mete out justice, or will its decision undermine it?
These questions resonate today in light of current high-profile cases—the Derek Chauvin case being the most notorious one. Despite the notoriety of the Chauvin trial and attempts by many to exploit George Floyd’s death for political purposes, the preservation of the rule of law depends on the application of procedures that require fairness and evidentiary relevance. The principle that all are innocent until proven guilty in a fair and just process must never be lost.
These issues are the heart of a new book—Uncle Brice: a Killing, a Trial, a True Story. In Uncle Brice, a present-day lawyer investigates the death of a great-uncle who died in the South in the 1930s. His investigation unearths a family secret: His great-uncle was murdered. Why? His murder carried racial undertones that, in the 1930s South, exposed the fissures of a society that cast itself as peaceful and genteel.
The deceased was a white banker. He was shot by an African-American janitor during an altercation over past-due rent. The janitor confessed to pulling the trigger and was indicted on charges of first-degree murder. The case was set to be tried before an all-white, all-male jury, which was the norm in Miller County, Arkansas in 1937. An experienced prosecutor matched wits and wiles against a retired Jewish judge who took on the killer’s case without pay.
Uncle Brice follows the twists and turns of the criminal trial, going behind the scenes to witness the evolution of our justice system and the competing prejudices that threatened to impact the outcome. Could justice be served? Would the defendant get a fair trial? Was he truly guilty? Why was Uncle Brice really murdered? Why and how did his death become the family secret?
For Uncle Brice, an often-overlooked confluence of social, economic, and geopolitical influences led to fascinating developments and intriguing, sometimes surprising, results. This true crime story will have readers turning page after page, hungry to know what happens next. The impact of Uncle Brice’s murder and the court action in this true-crime case will spur readers to reassess preconceived notions about the operation of the criminal justice system in the South during the Depression—and even today.
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