Beverly Lee and Leon Mosley
On Sunday, October 12, 1947, 13-year-old Beverly Lee was accused of snatching a woman's purse. The woman called Detroit Police and reported that a boy approached her, and then threatened her, before snatching her purse and running away. Officers William Owens and Louis Begin responded and found Lee and attempted to arrest him. They shouted for him to stop but when he failed to stop, Officer Owens fired a warning shot in the air, and when this did not stop Lee, Officer Begin shot Lee in the back. Found on his dead body was a watch that belonged to the victim and $18. Police later reported that Lee had been positively identified in five previous purse snatchings.
Lee's death was the third time in a year that a juvenile had been shot and killed by Detroit police officers. Immediately after the shooting, the prosecutor's office exonerated Officer Begin. This did not sit well with the NAACP who demanded and then proceeded to conduct its own investigation. Police Commissioner John F. Ballenger ordered a full investigation of the shooting after the NAACP began their investigation. Ballenger stated, "There's too much shooting by policemen. It would have been much better for that boy, and a hundred like him, to get away than to have lost his life over a snatched purse." The police department's investigation later cleared both officers of any wrong doing.
The neighborhood where the incident occurred was described as "mixed race" and neighbors were very upset. Eyewitnesses came forward and contradicted what the officers reported. One eyewitness, identified as a white woman and whose son was a playmate of Lee's, rushed to Lee's dead body. She asked the police officers why did they have to shoot Lee, and ignoring her question, one officer said, "I got him right through the heart. That's what comes from so much target practice."
Several witnesses stated Lee did not have the stolen money, bonds, and watch that police claimed was on his body. Rather they said he had a five dollar bill which was given to him by his mother for shopping, a fifty cent piece, which was his lunch money, an old wallet, a pocket knife, and a chain.
In January of 1948, after the urging of the NAACP, the Corner's Office held a hearing concerning Lee's shooting and again the officer was acquitted by the coroner's jury. The jury did send a letter to Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy urging the department to review its firearm policies when involving juveniles.
The appeal from the coroner's jury to the Detroit Police Department fell on deaf ears. On Friday, June 4, 1948, approximately eight months after Lee was shot and killed, 15-year-old Leon Mosley was shot by Detroit Police officers after he stole a car and refused to stop. Officers Louis Melasi and John Boland claimed they noticed Mosley was speeding without his lights on. They attempted to stop him and a car pursuit ensued. During the pursuit, Officer Boland claimed that Mosley attempted to sideswipe their squad car. Officer Boland at one point during the chase, shot at the car three times. One bullet struck the car and another hit the tire. The police chased Mosley for 12 blocks before he lost control and hit a tree. Mosley jumped out of the wrecked car and officers grabbed him but Mosley pulled and attempted to flee at least two times before Officer Melasi first fired a warning shot and then shot Mosley in the back.
There were approximately 40 eyewitnesses to the incident, and a majority gave statements that the officers beat Mosley before shooting and killing him. One witnessed stated he saw an officer hit Mosley over the head with a gun. Six tiny blood spots were found on Melasi's weapon. Two other witnesses stated they heard the crash and went to see what occurred. They saw three policemen beating and yelled for the officers to stop beating him. Mosley was able to break free and ran away. The officers gave chase and one witnessed yelled, "Don't shoot that boy." At that point, a single shot was fired and Mosely fell to the ground. The doctor who performed the autopsy noted lacerations and a minor fracture which "could have been caused by external violence."
On June 11, 1948, Leon Mosley's funeral was held at St. John's A.M.E. Church. More than 2,000 people were jammed inside the church while 1,000 more stood outside. After the funeral about 500 men, women and children marched to city hall and staged a protest. Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy warned before the protest that it was planned by Communists, and said, "American people have the right of assembly; the police will preserve order." As the protestors marched they chanted, "Toy must go."
Future mayor Coleman Young, who at the time was an official of the Wayne County CIO Council spoke at the demonstration. He said the officer who shot Mosely should be jailed for murder, that Toy should be removed from office, and Mosely's parents should be paid for their son's death.
Eventually Officer Louis Melasi was charged and tried for involuntary manslaughter. Recorder's Judge Arthur Gordon found him not guilty on December 20, 1948, and he was immediately given his job back by Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy. Officer Melasi was also given $2,021 in back pay. Toy told Melasi he wanted him to be "as fearless an officer as you were before this happened."
During the reading of his verdict, Judge Gorden admonished "pink devotees of agitation" for stirring race hatred. He further stated that Melasi was merely doing his duty and "should be commended as an alert police officer." He cited the law that said, "a police officer may shoot and kill to prevent the escape of a felon." The court noted that Melasi did not know the car was stolen at the time, but the officer saw Mosely attempt to commit several felonies.
The judge went on to review the testimony of people and placed them into two groups. One group he said were organized by communists and testified that Mosely was beaten by police and was shot as he staggered away. The other group he said, "quietly and soberly" gave evidence that the officers yelled, "halt" and shot a single time. Judge Gordon further said, "It is worthy of notice that those witnesses who made the wildest accusations were of the group produced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and sent to be interviewed by the pink devotees of agitation. If the handful of Communist agitators who are trying to ruin the creditable work of the NAACP cared to do a good deed for once in their pink lives, they would raise money to replace the automobile stolen by Mosely."
Detroit Police Officer Louis Melasi testifying during his December 1948 trial.
Detroit Free Press - Boy, 13, Slain by Officers as He Flees. October 13, 1947 - page 17
Detroit Free Press - Ballenger Scores Police in Fatal Shooting of Boy. October 17, 1947- page 25
Detroit Free Press - Probe Starts After Police Kill Boy. October 18, 1947 - page 5
Detroit Tribune - Ballenger Says 'No Cover Up'. October 18, 1947 - page 1 & 2
Detroit Tribune - Coroner's Jury Acquits Officer But Criticizes Police Ethics in Lee Case. January 17, 1948 - page 1
Detroit Free Press - Inquiry Set in Slaying by Police. June 12, 1948 - page 1
Detroit Free Press - 2 Policemen Suspended in Slaying of Boy,15. June13, 1948 - page 8
Detroit Free Press - Police Beat Gun Victim, Inquest Told. June 22, 1948 - page 15
Detroit Free Press - Begged Police Not to Shoot, Witnesses Say. December 16, 1948 - page 15
Detroit Free Press - Boland Tells of Attempt to Nab Mosley Unhurt. December 17, 1948 - page 21
Detroit Free Press - Judge Frees Slayer of Mosley. December 21, 1948 - page 21