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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 promptly called the Detroit Police, reporting that a boy had approached and threatened her before grabbing her purse and fleeing. Officers William Owens and Louis Begin responded to the scene and attempted to apprehend Lee. Despite their warnings to stop, Lee continued to flee. Officer Owens fired a warning shot into the air, but when Lee persisted, Officer Begin shot him in the back. Upon searching Lee's body, the officers found a watch belonging to the victim and $18 in cash. Police later revealed that Lee had been positively identified in five previous purse snatchings.

Lee's death marked the third time in a year that a juvenile had been shot and killed by Detroit police officers. The prosecutor's office quickly exonerated Officer Begin, which sparked outrage from the NAACP. They demanded and subsequently conducted their own investigation. Police Commissioner John F. Ballenger ordered a full investigation after the NAACP's intervention, stating, 'There's been too much shooting by policemen. It would have been far better for that boy, and countless others like him, to escape than to lose his life over a snatched purse.' The police department's investigation later cleared both officers of any wrongdoing.

The incident took place in a 'mixed-race' neighborhood, where neighbors were deeply disturbed. Eyewitnesses contradicted the officers' reports, with one white woman, whose son was a playmate of Lee's, confronting the officers at the scene. She questioned why Lee had to be shot, to which one officer callously responded, 'I got him right through the heart. That's what comes from so much target practice.'

Several witnesses disputed the items claimed to be found on Lee's body by the police. Instead, they stated that Lee had only a five-dollar bill given to him by his mother for shopping, a fifty-cent piece for lunch money, an old wallet, a pocket knife, and a chain.

In January of 1948, following pressure from the NAACP, the Coroner's Office held a hearing regarding Lee's shooting. Once again, the officer was acquitted by the coroner's jury. However, the jury did send a letter to Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy, urging the department to review its firearm policies regarding juveniles.

Lee Coroners Jury_edited.jpg

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 speeding without his lights on and attempted to stop him, leading to a car pursuit. During the chase, Officer Boland alleged that Mosley tried to sideswipe their squad car. At one point, Officer Boland fired at the car three times, striking it once and hitting the tire. The police chased Mosley for 12 blocks until he lost control and crashed into a tree. Mosley attempted to flee after exiting the wrecked car, but officers apprehended him. Despite Mosley's attempts to break free, Officer Melasi first fired a warning shot and then shot him in the back.

Approximately 40 eyewitnesses observed the incident, with a majority stating that the officers beat Mosley before shooting and killing him. One witness reported seeing an officer strike Mosley over the head with a gun. Blood spots were found on Melasi's weapon, indicating physical altercation. Two other witnesses stated they heard the crash and witnessed three policemen beating Mosley. Despite bystanders urging the officers to stop, Mosley managed to run away, prompting the officers to pursue him. As one witness yelled, "Don't shoot that boy," a single shot was fired, and Mosley fell to the ground. The doctor who conducted the autopsy noted lacerations and a minor fracture that "could have been caused by external violence."

On June 11, 1948, Leon Mosley's funeral took place at St. John's A.M.E. Church, attended by over 2,000 people inside the church and 1,000 more outside. Following the funeral, approximately 500 men, women, and children marched to city hall to stage a protest. Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy, preemptively labeling the protest as planned by Communists, assured that the police would maintain order. As the protestors marched, they chanted, "Toy must go."

Future mayor Coleman Young, then an official of the Wayne County CIO Council, addressed the demonstration, advocating for the officer who shot Mosley to be jailed for murder, Toy's removal from office, and compensation for Mosley's parents for their son's death.

Leon Mosely - Funeral Picture_edited.jpg
Leon Mosely_edited.jpg

Officer Louis Melasi was eventually charged and tried for involuntary manslaughter. Recorder's Judge Arthur Gordon found him not guilty on December 20, 1948, and he was immediately reinstated by Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy, who also awarded him $2,021 in back pay. Toy expressed his desire for Melasi to resume his duties "as fearlessly as before this incident."

During the verdict reading, Judge Gordon criticized "agitators" for inciting racial animosity. He emphasized that Melasi was simply fulfilling his duty and deserved commendation as a vigilant police officer. The judge cited the law permitting officers to use lethal force to prevent a felon's escape. Although Melasi was unaware that the car was stolen, he observed Mosely attempting various felonies.

Judge Gordon categorized witnesses into two groups. He alleged that one group, purportedly organized by communists, falsely claimed that Mosely was beaten by the police and shot while staggering away. In contrast, he described the other group as providing testimony calmly and without bias, stating that officers commanded Mosely to halt before firing a single shot. Gordon remarked that the witnesses making extreme accusations were associated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and influenced by communist agitators. He suggested that these agitators should, instead, focus on positive actions, such as raising funds to replace the stolen automobile.

PO Testifying - Leon Moseley 2.tif
PO Testifying - Leon Moseley 3.tif
PO Testifying - Leon Moseley.tif

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

Detroit's Criminal Justice System

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