District judge gives insight on notorious Waco lynching

Posted at 10:41 PM, Apr 29, 2016
and last updated 2018-04-05 11:31:46-04

May 8, 1916 - the dead body of a bludgeoned and bloody Robinson resident, Lucy Fryer was discovered.

On the very next day, May 9th - the  Waco Morning News begins to tell of the crime. Among the gruesome details of Fryer’s injuries: a suspect is identified.

He is 17-year-old Jesse Washington.

The paper says that within five minutes of arriving on the Fryer property, Deputies Lee Jenkins and Barney Goldberg were "certain he was the assailant."

Two days later, on May 10th - A Waco Morning news reporter writes that the illiterate Washington signed a confession. An edited version of the confession was run in the paper that day.

A mob from Robinson began to search for the teen. But police officials had already rushed Washington to the jail in Dallas.

Within a matter of days a jury was selected and Washington was assigned a defense team.

On May 15th - just one week after Lucy Fryer was found dead - Washington went to trial in the what we now know as the McLennan County 54th District Court. Judge R.I. Monroe presided.

The confession he allegedly gave to Sheriff S.S. Flemming, the testimony that Washington showed investigators where the murder weapon was, and allegations that spots of blood were on his clothes, were used as evidence against him at trial. 

The jury of twelve white men retired at 11:14 a.m. on the day the trial started. They returned with a verdict in four minutes.

Washington was found guilty and sentenced to death.

A lynch mob rushed into the courtroom, and dragged Washington down stairs behind a wall in the judge's chamber. Once outside, the mob wrapped a chain around Washington’s neck and dragged him to City Hall.

He was beaten and stabbed along the way.

A crowd estimated to be about 15,000 people - at least half of Waco’s population at the time - gathered to watch as Washington was mutilated.

For two hours- he was continuously dipped in a fire while the crowd cheered. His body parts were cut off and kept for souvenirs.

Once the mob was done - what was left of his body was placed in a bagged and dragged back to Robinson, where it was hung from a utility pole.

Current 54th District Court Judge Matt Johnson has also served as a defense attorney and a prosecutor. He said he would have handled things differently had he been working on the trial.

"I can tell you today, if something like this happened, first thing I would've done is filed a motion to transfer venue," Johnson said. "If we thought there would have been a potential for mob violence or something like that, I would’ve requested that the sheriff have additional security," 

That’s if Johnson worked on Washington’s defense.

"The oath prosecutors take is to see that justice is done. It’s not to seek a certain number of convictions or to get convictions in everything that's referred to you," Johnson said. "I certainly would have looked at all the facts. I would have called witnesses to the grand jury. 

Johnson said if he worked for the state, he would have made sure the facts were fully developed.

"I think it was a trial that was undertaken in a fashion that didn't afford both the state and the defense time to prepare," the judge said. "Hopefully we learn from mistakes of the past and we make sure that the rule of law is always observed."

No one from the mob of nearly 15,000 people was ever prosecuted for the lynching of Jesse Washington. 

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