Morris McFadden, a veteran of World War I and employed by the city of Rock Hill as its only motorcycle policeman, languished in the York County jail from February 27 to March 9, 1925. During a high-speed chase within the city limits, he had fired his pistol several times and unwittingly killed one the passengers, Dewey Simpson, a Chester Hardware clerk.
The death of the young man devastated McFadden, and of his own accord, he surrendered to the county sheriff. The officer had a spotless record, and his personal character was a ready-made defense for his attorneys, but could they convince a jury? After 10 days McFadden was released on a $5,000 bond following a hearing before Associate Justice J. H. Marion. G. K. Dickert, A. C. Lytle, and J. B. Johnson of Rock Hill and Carl H. Hart of York raised the bond.
When the case came to court on Friday, April 17, everyone expected it to take up most of the day, and it did — five and a half hours. Judge R. Withers Memminger placed no time limitations on the attorneys to present their case; the six attorneys took full advantage of the leniency of the judge and gave lengthy arguments.
Due to what he termed “mitigating circumstances,” Solicitor J. L. Glenn did not press for the death penalty as he felt he was allowed by law. He believed that the McFadden case was one of the more important cases to come to trial up to that time and would establish a precedent. Glenn argued that McFadden had usurped the powers of his office. But the real question, he told the jury, was whether there was one code of conduct for law officers and another for private citizens. The state contended that McFadden had no legal or moral right to discharge his firearm into the car carrying the four young men from Chester.
The defense team argued that the officer acted in the interest of public safety. The driver of the fancy Maxwell touring car, Booney Cooke, was vilified by the defense who described him as a menace to life and limb. Attorney Hart demanded that it was not officer McFadden who was guilty of Simpson’s death but the “sot Booney Cooke.”
McFadden testified that, on the night in question, he had gotten word a car was being driven recklessly through town. He climbed upon his motorcycle and began his search when, at the corner of Trade and Main, he saw the Maxwell come across the railroad in heavy traffic, running forty-five miles an hour. Catching up with the speeding car, McFadden said, he blew his horn, whistled and hollered for the driver to stop at least eight times. In as many times, when the officer pulled along the side of the speeding car, the driver would jerk his car to the left, trying to run him into a ditch. The last time McFadden came up along side the car they had reached the end of the pavement and the car skidded and went into a ditch about twenty-five feet ahead of the motorcycle. The driver spun away and headed back toward town. Again, McFadden caught up with them as they slowed to turn into Saluda Street, nearly collided with another car. The Maxwell was wide open; the exhaust was making a terrible racquet and throwing balls of fire. Running about fifty miles an hour in heavy traffic the fleeing car swung back and forth across the road. In one last attempt McFadden came up beside the car and fired at the ground hoping the driver would hear the report and pull over. Getting no response he shot at left tire. Just then, he was later say, they ran out of pavement and gravel began to fly in his face and almost loss control of the motorcycle. In an effort to regain control he accidentally fired his pistol. At that he turned around, went back to town and made his report.
When questioned what he had witness that evening, Tom Gaddy said he left his barber shop around ten thirty and walked home. As he got to the house he heard a car coming down East Main Street traveling at a high rate of speed. He stopped a moment to see what all the racket was about when a car zoomed past throwing dust in his face. Behind the speeding car, about thirty feet, a motorcycle was in close pursuit and began pulling along side the car. Gaddy’s view was blocked by bellowing dust when the car ran onto the dirt road, but he could hear tires squealing. The car seemed to leap out of the dust cloud and shot back up the street toward Gaddy and the town limits. As it passed, the driver had it wide open and the cut out was making a terrific noise along with the blaring the horn. When McFadden came behind him on his motorcycle, Gaddy thought he was going about sixty, but the car kept a long lead ahead. Though the car and the motorcycle cop went out of sight he could hear the car plainly as it sped up Main Street and turn onto Saluda Street. He heard what sounded like gun but thought it was the car or motorcycle popping.
Driving the car that was nearly hit that night was twenty years old J. P. Culp who had worked late that night and was driving on Saluda Street toward town when he heard and noticed a car coming toward him at a high speed, swerving back and forth across the street. Culp drove his car completely off the road to avoid being hit. Momentarily a motorcycle cop passed and he saw the officer fire his pistol while the car was still on the pavement and a second shot just as he went on to the dirt. Culp heard the motorcycle slow down and stop, but the car traveled on. Directly the officer came back by Culp toward town, traveling about thirty miles an hour.
Following closing remarks from all six attorneys Judge Menninger took 30 minutes to give the jury a concise interpretation of the law as it applied to the case. More than one hundred people remained in the courtroom while the jury was out deliberating. Finally, after nearly three hours, a few minutes before ten o’clock, court officials were informed the jury had completed it deliberation. They brought in a verdict of guilty of manslaughter. Excusing the jury Menninger instructed them not to discuss their verdict or how they came about with the decision because it was “nobody’s business.” McFadden was remanded to jail until the following day. Saturday morning he was brought into the courthouse and remained in the anteroom throughout most of the day with fellow officers, relatives and sympathizing friends.
Finally, at five o’clock that afternoon Judge Memminger began the sentencing procedures. Attorneys Wilson and Hart made an earnest plea for clemency, asking for the lightest sentence possible, referring to his excellent war record. Rev. R. S. Truesdale, pastor of St John’s Methodist Church where McFadden worshiped, and Rev. Nat E. Smith of the Yorkville A. R. P. Church referenced his Christian character in their plea for leniency. The judge listened patiently as the prisoner’s constitutional rights were exercised, and then addressed the prisoner. Memminger said he was satisfied Simpson’s death was not deliberate, but a mistake of the head and not of the heart. When the judge sentenced McFadden to three to six years in prison, the prisoner showed little more emotion than he had shown during the trial. All day Friday, during the testimony of thirty-two witnesses, he carried a worried look, but at the sentencing only the most observant would have seen McFadden’s eyes moisten and the muscles of his throat twitch with stress.
Attorneys Wilson and Hart gave notice of appeal; later admitting it was only to give their client time to settle his affairs. In the meantime he was released on a five thousand dollar bond. Hart said his firm would carefully review the case but was sure the appeal would not be perfected. While many York County residents thought the verdict was not severe enough, the case established the fact that officers of the law needed to take every caution in high-speed pursuits. A reporter in Chester wrote, “This thing of firing at tires to bring a car to a stop is a risky business, and while we are in thorough sympathy with the officers of the law when they have the law on their side, we would like to see a few officers brought into court for firing at cars in this fashion and thus jeopardizing the lives of occupants. The whole thing resolves itself in this: No man is fit to be an officer of the law who is not cool and level-headed. No man who is unable to control his temper and is liable to flare up if his quarry seems about to get away from him, and pulls his gun and shoots, even though only in the general direction of the car, is fit to be an officer; and when a man gives evidence in this manner of his unfitness, whether his display of temper has proven costly or not, he should be relieved of his job.”
Historically, it may be of interest to know that Wallace W. Fennell, M.D., due to health problems retired from practicing medicine in January 1926 and leased the infirmary he had established twenty-five years earlier to W. B. Ward, M.D. who was in practice with Dr. John S. Lewis of York.
J.L. West – Author
This article and many others found on the pages of Roots and Recall, were written by author J.L. West, for the YC Magazine and have been reprinted on R&R, with full permission – not for distribution or reprint!
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