A Second Reckoning: Race, Injustice, and the Last Hanging in Annapolis
Scott D. Seligman
Potomac Books (2021)
Reviewed by Megan Weiss for Reader Views (01/2022)
Scott D. Seligman’s “A Second Reckoning: Race, Injustice, and the Last Hanging in Annapolis” recounts the brutal murder of Lottie Mae Brandon in the summer of 1917, and the controversial investigation, trial, and conviction that remained present in the minds of Maryland citizens for decades afterward.
John Snowden was a young African American man in his mid-20’s when he was accused of viciously attacking the pregnant wife of Valentine Brandon. Without a solid alibi, unable to confirm where he had gotten the scratches on his face, and based on the potential unreliable testimony of two rumored eye witnesses, Snowden was convicted based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to hang. Following a trial that many came to call ‘prejudiced’ against Snowden, throngs of supporters showed up to try and reiterate the profound belief among both African American and white citizens that Snowden was innocent. Snowden was hanged in 1919 in front of a large crowd. It was about eighty-two years later that an alderman caught wind of the old case and worked to have Snowden pardoned. In 2001, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening granted the pardon due to the belief that Snowden’s execution was a miscarriage of justice.
“A Second Reckoning” was a fascinating novel to read. I was dismayed that I had never heard of this case, especially after realizing how much of an impact it had not only when it happened, but for over eighty years after the fact. It makes you wonder how many other cases like this have been pushed to the back of American history archives, and how much this type of “miscarriage” still happens today.
One thing I thought was particularly captivating about the author’s stance, the circumstances surrounding the public view of the case, and Snowden’s eventual sentence was that there is still no clear answer as to whether he was one hundred percent guilty or innocent of the crime. A fact largely highlighted in “A Second Reckoning” was that Snowden never confessed, despite brutal treatment from law enforcement officials during his interrogations and a trial that was prejudicially stacked against him from a legal standpoint. Some of the prosecution’s evidence, however, such as the lack of an alibi and the mysterious scratches on Snowden’s face, was definitely compelling. I thought it was significant that the question surrounding his eventual pardon was not based on his guilt or innocence, but on the fact that in general there were aspects of the investigation and handling of the case that were unethical. Particularly poignant was why Governor Glendening ultimately granted the posthumous pardon: not because he believed Snowden to be innocent, but because he never should have been sent to hang on the basis of circumstantial evidence.
I have actually been working in the legal world for about four years now, and am in the process of obtaining a Paralegal Certificate. “A Second Reckoning” was thought-provoking to read at this point in my life and career, since I have been learning about a lot of the ethical guidelines and practices regarding trials and the legal system. It was astounding to see how the judge, governor, law enforcement, and the prosecution all made what today would be seen as glaring ethics violations. It was even more astounding, and sobering, to remember that not too long ago that was considered acceptable practice.
Of course, I don’t think it’s necessary for readers to have experience in the field of law to enjoy the book; I think it definitely helped me understand the gravity of the subject matter, and why Seligman believed this was such an important story to tell. “A Second Reckoning” is a great read for law students, history lovers, justice seekers, and those who are looking to try and gain a better understanding of just how hard some of our fellow community members still have to fight for basic justice as a result of racial bias still present in American society.