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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Thomas Jackson White Jr., March 14, 1986. Interview C-0029-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Winning convictions in a brutal rape case

White describes one of the instances in which North Carolina's governor asked him to take leave from his responsibilities in the General Assembly to help with a troubling criminal case and comments on the state's jury system. The case in this instance was a horrific attack upon a young woman, and using evidence from one of her assailants, White secured convictions for four others. He deflects the suggestion that he was an effective prosecutor, but his skill at "figuring out what a human being will do under given circumstances" made him a frequent resource for the state's governors. One of the ways in which he applied this skill was in jury selection. White remarks on some of the changes about rules in that area and declares the system a good one.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Thomas Jackson White Jr., March 14, 1986. Interview C-0029-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

PAMELA DEAN:
This is Pamela Dean. The date is March 14, 1986. I'm going to be talking with former North Carolina State Senator Thomas J. White in his office in Kinston. You had told me in previous interviews that on some occasions a governor would call you in to ask you to assist the prosecutor in some particularly complicated or delicate case. If you could give us an illustration of that.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
As I have said, my law practice was largely civil, but the criminal law has always fascinated me. In the early days of my law practice, like any other young lawyer, I'd take anything that I could make an honest nickel out of, so I had experience in criminal cases as well as civil cases. And after I became a member of the General Assembly, once in a while, very infrequently, there would be a case in which the governor felt that the regularly assigned prosecutor had a job on his hands in which he needed help. More often than not such cases involved very atrocious crimes. I have been called on by more than one governor to assist prosecutors in cases which were difficult and required a lot of, maybe, special investigation and to just take a leave of absence from the General Assembly for a week or more if necessary and help that particular prosecutor in that particular case. That occurred only a very few times. For example (or to illustrate), there was one case in which a young white man had taken his girl in his automobile and gone for a ride and after awhile (this was at night) they stopped in a secluded wooded area and did whatever young boys and young girls are wont to do in situations of that sort. And all of a sudden, five black males came to the car and snatched open the door on the driver's side, took this young white man out of his car, took his car keys and unlocked the trunk or boot of the car in which they deposited the young white man. They put him in there and locked him up. Then the five black males took the girl and while four of them, one at a time, held the girl's arms and her legs, and the five of them raped her until she was raped by all five of them. Of course, she had no way of identifying these people. She didn't know them, had never seen them before, and neither had the young white man, and he didn't get much of a chance to see them as they locked him up in the trunk of his car. Well, the case was an important one and a very unusual one. The prosecuting officer, in those days was what we now call the district attorney; at that time we called him "the solicitor for the state." He was the prosecuting officer. He felt that he needed help and some help was assigned to him in the form of myself. The governor asked me if I would undertake the burden of assisting the solicitor or prosecuting attorney in the investigation and the trial of this case. I agreed to do it. I felt that I had agreed to perform an impossible task. I also felt a duty to understand that task and give it the best effort of which I was capable. The investigation was long, careful and tedious. With great care we explored first all the "possibilities," if any, that were open to us. We calculated as best we could the time during which a thread of evidence might in some way appear, as for example some chance remark by some one other than the five culprits might be made. We had the aid of enforcement people whose training we counted on, cautioning these to make as thorough and quiet an investigation as possible. We hoped that the pressure which sometimes arises from guilt or the knowledge of it would eventually work in the state's favor. And eventually it did. It appeared that one or more of the cuprits was a son of a farm owner or of a tenant farmer. The crime occurred in a farm section of the county. The father of one of the culprits evidently concluded that the only sure way that he could help his son was for him to convince his son that cooperation with the District Attorney's office could result in his son's receiving, in return for his help, possibly a lighter sentence or even that by his cooperation his life might be spared. As a result of advice from his father and those who were his father's friends, this one culprit cooperated with the prosecution to the extent of identifying and "involving" the other four of the guilty ones and convictions resulted.
PAMELA DEAN:
You like a good fight.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Well, I've had a lot them and I've enjoyed some of them. I had the tar beat out of me at times; those I did not enjoy as much as those I won.
PAMELA DEAN:
Well, you won more than you lost, I understand.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
I don't know about that, that's for others to say, but I had a good time.
PAMELA DEAN:
I think generally your reputation over the course of your entire career, from what I understand, is that most people do say you won more than you lost, that you were effective.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Well, I've never tried to figure that out but I've enjoyed the practice of law. If it's done on a proper basis and you don't try to take shortcuts or surreptitious advantages and that sort of thing, it's fine. It's an exercise in skill, it's an exercise in figuring out what a human being will do under given circumstances. It has always been very interesting to me in selecting jurors for different kinds of cases.
PAMELA DEAN:
That's a real art.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Well, it is. I guess it's now more of a happenstance than it used to be. When I first came to the bar, no one in any county in North Carolina, was qualified to become a juror unless he was a resident freeholder in the county. And this made a tremendous difference. In a number of years after I came to the bar they abolished all the excuses and they called doctors and lawyers and a whole lot of other folks that nobody is going to have on a jury except in exceptional cases to serve. They can be excused. I guess that's good. It gives a lot of people who otherwise would not know that to serve on a jury is a valuable public service, they would never know that unless they had the experience of serving on a jury. To serve as a juror is one of the highest services that anyone can render as a citizen. You take that much time out of your life and you give it to the state and for a pittance. Of course, they can't pay but so much. This varies from state to state, and county to county sometimes. Anyway, the jury system is about as good a system as has ever been devised, I think.