In 1972, Frank Snepp III was the CIA’s chief analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, three years before he would be one of the last Americans hastily evacuated by helicopter.
It was in 1972 that his father, Superior Court Judge Frank Snepp, presided at the trial that sentenced Jim Grant to 25 years in prison for his alleged role in the burning of a Charlotte stable.
We recounted the story of Grant and the “Charlotte Three” in Friday’s Observer, prompting this email from Snepp, who says he has “long been haunted by this case and my father’s handling of it.” He agreed to share his email.
“I read with interest your story about the much deserved award that the ACLU is bestowing on Jim Grant for his civil rights activism. Judge Frank Snepp, my father, handed down the unspeakable sentence of 25 years in prison for Mr. Grant’s alleged involvement in burning down a local horse stable in 1968.
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“When Judge Snepp ruled on the case in 1972, I was otherwise engaged, as a CIA officer under Vietnam assignment. But when I later learned of the sentence I was outraged and my family and I had many heated discussions with him about his ruling.
“Leaving aside the consequential issue of guilt or innocence, the harshness of the sentence seemed far out or proportion to what had happened, especially in the heated atmosphere of the civil rights struggles of the time when compassion, not vindictiveness, seemed the only answer to the great schisms dividing us.
“My father was a man of an earlier time. Though a brilliant jurist, he had grown up in a deeply divided South, in a household that still viewed blacks as somehow intrinsically inferior. He also suffered from a kind of emotional schizophrenia, widely shared by many of his peers, that could support compassion in personal inter-racial affairs, and rank prejudice in the abstract. On many an occasion my father rescued our wonderful live-in black ‘handyman’ from altercations ‘cross town’ as the African American community was called in the days of my youth. And this blinkered schizophrenia allowed my father to love this old gentleman and at the same time to harbor deep skepticism about a ‘movement’ involving African-American activism and civil rights.
“In our arguments over the Grant case, he invariably invoked a warped sense of justice, tinged with a bizarre humanity, in explaining his harsh sentence. He would say that a man who burned down a horse stable could kill humans with impunity and deserved to be made an example. Undoubtedly, in the mind of an old Dixiecrat, this equation seemed perfectly reasonable, and the concern for horses was his version of humanity expressing itself.
“To me it seemed an alibi for leaning over backwards to punish a black man out of all proportion to reason, simply because he was black. It took many years for my father to have second thoughts. But I know he did. And I suspect if he were alive he would find that justice had been served in the recognition Mr. Grant is receiving for his own humane works.”