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April 27, 2010
Book About Priest’s Murder in 1921 Featured at Supreme Court Lecture Series

During the Supreme Court of Ohio’s third Forum on the Law lecture, an Ohio State University law professor Tuesday told of how her family’s history and the U.S. history of laws banning interracial marriage led her to write a remarkable book about a 1921 revenge killing of a priest and the resulting trial in Birmingham, Ala.

Sharon Davies, the John C. Elam/Vorys Sater Distinguished Professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law, discussed her book “Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America” before a crowd of 200 people in the Supreme Court courtroom.

Davies explained that she came to write the book after becoming interested in U.S. laws banning interracial marriage and procreation in part because of her own personal story of being the daughter of parents who were forced to travel to New York to be married because their union was still illegal in South Carolina.

“It was not until I was 7 years old that these laws were ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court,” she said. “We were considered the evidence of a crime.”

In the book, Davies recounts how Methodist minister Edwin Stephenson murdered Fr. James Coyle on the front porch of the Catholic rectory in August 1921, shortly after learning Coyle performed the marriage ceremony between Stephenson’s 18-year-old daughter and a Puerto Rican.

Stephenson had long hated Coyle, believing he lured his daughter into the Catholic Church months earlier. The defense made issues of the victim’s religion and bridegroom’s race at trial.

After confessing to the crime, Stephenson hired Hugo Black to lead his defense. Black later joined the Ku Klux Klan, which secretly contributed funds for the minister’s defense. Years later, Black was named to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he was a staunch civil rights advocate.

During the lecture, Davies also discussed the extent to which legal outcomes reflect society’s sentiments and beliefs.

Davies practiced for five years in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York. A specialist in criminal law and procedure, she has published widely in prominent law journals and served as chair of the Criminal Justice Section of the Association of American Law Schools.

The American Constitution Society and the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education co-sponsored the program.

Designed to bring together the legal and judicial communities to explore topics of interest, the Supreme Court held the first two events in its Forum on the Law lecture series in 2009.

In April 2009, Professor Linda Przybyszewski recounted the 1873 “Bible War” case that helped frame the national debate about church/state relations well into the 20th Century during the court’s first legal forum. In October last year, veteran journalist Tony Mauro observed that the U.S. Supreme Court is moving decidedly away from the mysterious and closed practices that have characterized the nation’s high court for more than 200 years and toward a more open and accessible approach to the public. He noted that one of the factors contributing to the change is the addition of the latest Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor.

Contact: Chris Davey or Bret Crow, 614.387.9250.