On February 19, 1926, Lee E. Mosely (1883-1926), convicted of killing Seattle Police Officer Amos J. Comer (1879-1924), is hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. Comer had been shot by Mosely, an ex-convict, on July 4, 1924, while responding to a disturbance at the Colored Business Men’s Social Club in Seattle’s International District. The injured officer was taken immediately to City Emergency Hospital, where he died the following day. On October 17, 1924, a King County jury found Mosely guilty of murder and sentences him to death. After the appeals process ran its course and the governor refused to intervene, Mosley was taken to the penitentiary. He is the first African American executed at Walla Walla since 1901, the year the state assumed sole responsibility for carrying out the death penalty.
During Seattle’s "dry" years (1916-1933), a "social club" was a euphemism for a speakeasy, and there were many in the city's International District, then known as Chinatown. In addition to serving bootleg liquor, social clubs usually provided illicit entertainment such as gambling and prostitution. Neither prohibition nor gambling laws in Seattle were rigorously enforced, and many clubs received protection from corrupt city and police officials.
On Friday night, July 4, 1924, Patrol Officer Amos J. Comer, age 45, was dispatched from Seattle police headquarters at 4th Avenue and Yesler Way to investigate a complaint from Elias M. Martini, manager of the Colored Business Men’s Social Club, 614 1/2 S Jackson Street, that a man was brandishing a firearm and creating a disturbance. Martini wanted police to remove the man from the premises. By the time Comer arrived, most of the patrons had scattered. John H. Fears, the social club's cook and proprietor, told Comer the troublemaker had been drinking and losing money in a craps game in the basement. He became argumentative, pulled a revolver from his waistband, and threatened to shoot the first person who bothered him. Comer looked inside the club, but was unable to find the suspect and returned to the street. He was standing near the club's entrance when the suspect emerged.
Comer recognized the suspect from the "rogues' gallery" at police headquarters as Lee E. Mosley, alias "Tacoma Jack" Duffy, a 41-year-old transient with a lengthy criminal record. Mosley (spelled variously Moseley and Mosely) had recently been released from the Washington State Penitentiary, where he had served 10 years for second-degree murder. On December 19, 1913, Mosley had entered a tailor shop at 1344 South C Street in Tacoma and stabbed the proprietor, S. Okada, 37, after arguing over the price for pressing a suit of clothes. Okada died at Tacoma General Hospital three days later. Mosley had also served time at the state penitentiary in 1909 for selling liquor to Native Americans in Yakima County, and in Folsom State Prison (California) for assault and battery.
Comer stopped Mosley and started to search him for weapons. Mosley stepped back, drew his revolver and fired twice at Comer, one bullet grazing his right wrist and the other hitting him in the abdomen. When Comer collapsed onto the sidewalk, Mosley leaped on him and began clubbing him with the gun. Fears attempted to intervene and Mosley tried to shoot him as well, but the gun misfired. Mosley then fled south down an alley and disappeared. Patrol officers were informed that the suspect had been seen at 2nd Avenue S and S Washington Street, boasting he would never be taken alive and daring police to come and get him. The area was searched shortly after the shooting, but no trace of Mosley was found. Several witnesses to the shooting viewed a photo lineup at police headquarters and identified Mosley as the assailant
An ambulance rushed Comer to nearby City Emergency Hospital, located in the Public Safety Building (now the Yesler Building) at 4th Avenue and Yesler Way. At midnight, he underwent an emergency operation to stop internal bleeding and was given a transfusion. The bullet had been deflected by a rib, passing downward through his stomach and intestines. The wound proved fatal and Comer died at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday. Before dying, he positively identified Mosley as the shooter.
An Arrest and a Funeral
The Seattle Police Officers' Guild collected $250, which Captain of Detectives Charles Tennant (1876-1933) used to buy information. He learned that Mosley had fled Seattle and was holed up in a rooming house at S 13th Avenue and South K Street in Tacoma. At approximately 2 a.m. on July 7, a raiding party, led by Captain John S. Strickland of the Tacoma Police Department and including Seattle Police Detectives Daniel McLennan, Martin J. Cleary, Conrad Hawaldt, and Frank DuCett, entered Mosley’s room and found him in bed asleep with a loaded revolver under his pillow. As handcuffs were snapped on his wrists, Mosley remarked: "Well, this is the end of a perfect day" ("Policeman’s Slayer Held in Jail Here"). A few hours later, Mosley, refusing to answer questions, was booked into the Seattle City Jail. The following day, King County Deputy Prosecutor Theodore H. Patterson (1875-1942) filed a complaint in superior court charging Mosley with the first-degree murder of Officer Amos J. Comer.
The funeral for Comer, a 12-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, was held on July 10 in the chapel at the E. R. Butterworth and Sons Mortuary, 300 E Pine Street. A police honor guard, led by the Seattle Police Band, escorted the casket from the Public Safety Building through Seattle’s central business district. Comer was buried in a plot donated by the Evergreen Cemetery Company in Evergreen Memorial Park, 117th Avenue N and Woodland Park Avenue. He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and four children. Comer’s name was inscribed on a silver plaque at Seattle police headquarters that honors all the police officers killed in the line of duty since 1897.
On August 24, 1924, Mosley appeared for arraignment in King County Superior Court before Judge Archibald W. Frater (1856-1925). Seattle attorney Elledge Randolph Penland (1887-1968), a 1923 University of Washington law-school graduate, had been appointed to represent the defendant. Mosley pleaded not guilty to an information charging him with one count of first-degree murder. Frater scheduled the trial for September 9, 1924.
A week before trial, Deputy Prosecutor Patterson discovered that many of his important witnesses, men who worked as porters and cooks for the Great Northern and Northern Pacific rail lines, would be scattered over the western half of the U.S. during September. Frater rescheduled the trial for October 13, 1924, a date the scheduling experts at the King Street Station determined would find all the railroad-employed witnesses available in Seattle.
Mosley’s trial began October 13 before Judge Otis W. Brinker (1878-1933). A jury of seven women and five men, plus one alternate, was impaneled to hear the case. In his opening statement, Patterson explained the State’s case to the jurors: Amos Comer, acting in his capacity as a Seattle police officer, was gunned down by the defendant on a public sidewalk without provocation. Mosley was a convicted murderer who earlier voiced his intention to shoot anyone who bothered him. Rather than surrender or flee when confronted by Comer, the defendant intentionally shot him, as witnessed by several persons. It was an act of premeditated murder which qualified the defendant for the death penalty under Washington law.
Defense counsel Penland waived his opening statement, and the prosecution then presented testimony from several people who were present at the Colored Business Men’s Social Club the night Comer was shot. Although Mosley wasn’t a habitué of the establishment, all the witnesses positively identified him as the culprit. The State rested its case. After a brief recess, Penland announced to the court that the defense would offer no testimony and rested its case. In closing arguments, Patterson demanded the jury impose the death penalty for the wanton murder of Officer Comer. Penland portrayed Comer’s murder as unintentional, attacked inconsistencies in the testimony of witnesses, and gave a stirring plea against capital punishment.
Judge Brinker’s instructions to the jury followed, and the case was delivered to the panel at 4 p.m. At 8:55 p.m., the jury foreman reported to the bailiff that they had reached a verdict. The jury found Mosley guilty of first-degree murder and recommended the death penalty. Penland immediately filed a motion for a new trial and arrest of judgment. When Brinker denied the motion, Penland gave notice of appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court.
Failed Appeals, New Investigations
Mosley was without funds, and preparing an appeal for Supreme Court review was costly. Penland would require a trial transcript, which cost about $500, and King County Prosecutor Ewing D. Colvin agreed to pay for it. On May 28, 1925, encouraged by his earlier success, Penland asked Colvin for $5 to file the appeal with the clerk of the Supreme Court in Olympia. Prosecutor Colvin wasn’t amused and told Penland it was too much to expect the citizens of King County to pay for Mosley’s trial transcript and the filing fee. Colvin advised that unless the $5 was paid and the appeal filed forthwith he would move for a dismissal, which would result in Mosley being hanged. Although he complained that he would be unable to get $5 from Mosley, Penland, after leaving the prosecutor's office, apparently obtained the filing fee through other means.
On December 7, 1925, the Washington State Supreme Court, finding no errors in the trial record, affirmed Mosley’s conviction and death sentence. On January 12, 1926, King County Superior Court Judge Everett T. Smith (1861-1933) sentenced the defendant to be hanged on Friday, February 19, 1926. Mosley was returned to his cell in the King County Jail to await issuance of commitment papers and the death warrant. The following week, King County Sheriff Matt Starwich, accompanied by two traveling guards from the Washington State Penitentiary, took Smith to the King Street Station, where the party boarded a Northern Pacific passenger train for Walla Walla.
Meanwhile, Penland had renewed his efforts to stay Mosley’s execution. In early February 1926, he presented to Governor Roland H. Hartley (1864-1952) affidavits from two witnesses, Cornelius Crawford and his wife Rena May, who said they saw the shooting from a second-story window in the Bush Hotel, 621 S Jackson Street, opposite the Business Men’s Social Club. The Crawfords maintained it wasn’t Mosley who shot Officer Comer, but rather a Filipino male wearing a Navy uniform.
Hartley appointed Assistant State Attorney General Raymond G. Sharpe (1881-1958) to conduct a special investigation of this "new evidence." Prosecutor Colvin assigned Deputy Prosecutor Robert M. Burgunder (1888-1971) to review the case, with assistance from Patterson, who had by this time left the prosecutor's office, and Penland. Although legal appeals were exhausted and the case could not be reopened in the courts, Penland believed the new evidence presented an opportunity to press Hartley for a commutation of Mosley’s sentence to life imprisonment.
A review of the evidence presented at trial was overwhelmingly against the defendant. It included the dying declaration from Comer identifying Mosley as his killer and ballistic tests, conducted by Seattle criminologist Luke S. May (1892-1965), which proved the fatal bullet came from the gun in Mosley’s possession at the time of his arrest. On February 17, 1926, Hartley announced his refusal to grant the condemned prisoner executive clemency or otherwise interfere with the judgment and sentence of the courts. No further appeals were filed on Mosley’s behalf.
Put to Death
At 5:45 a.m. on Friday, February 19, 1926, Mosley walked from his death-row cell to the gallows, accompanied by two prison guards. He requested there be no clergy in attendance. Warden Clarence E. Long (1872-1949) read Mosley the death warrant and then asked if he had any last words. Proclaiming his innocence, the condemned man replied: "To say anything now would be a joke" ("Moseley Dies on Gallows").
After he had mounted the scaffold, a black cloth hood was pulled over Mosley’s head, followed by the hangman’s noose. The trapdoor was sprung at 5:56 a.m., dropping him six feet to his death. Mosley’s body was taken down at 6:03 a.m. and the penitentiary physician, Jessie W. Ingram, pronounced him dead. He was buried in the penitentiary cemetery, in a grave marked as inmate number 5583.
In 1901, the State Legislature directed that all executions be carried out at the penitentiary at Walla Walla. The death penalty was later abolished in Washington from 1913 to 1919. Lee E. Mosley was the 21st prisoner, the fifth from King County, and the first Black person to be put to death at the Washington State Penitentiary since a 1904 execution, the first performed by the State. Owing to the notoriety and melodrama of the Roy Olmstead bootlegging trial, which ran in Seattle from January 19 to February 20, 1926, his hanging received scant news coverage.