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Alumna Finds A Family Connection To A Landmark Case

June 4, 2014
SHSU Media Contact: Julia May

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The grandchildren of Grover McCormick Sr.— (above, from left) Fisher Trigg, Nancy Hauck and SHSU alumna Cutty Gilbert—donated McCormick's personal papers to the Newton Gresham Library's Thomason Room criminal justice collection as a resource for students condcting research on various legal issues. McCormick, a lawyer in Tennessee, was part of a case that set the foundation for the Miranda Warning, which requires individuals to be informed of their constitutional rights at the time of an arrest. —Photo by Brian Blalock

 

Cutty Gilbert knew her late grandfather, Grover McCormick Sr., was an attorney. As a child, she, her siblings and cousins often visited him at his law office in Memphis.

She even attended his memorial service at the Shelby County Courthouse in Tennessee, where fellow lawyers and judges eulogized him and praised his work in the legal profession.

However, it wasn’t until she started taking criminal law classes at Sam Houston State University and came across his name in her textbook that she realized just how important his work was in the area of constitutional law. One of his cases helped to lay the foundation for the establishment of the well-known Miranda Warning.

Gilbert, along with her brother, Fisher Trigg, of Houston, and sister, Nancy Hauck, of San Antonio, have presented their grandfather’s personal papers to the criminal justice collection housed in the Thomason Room of the Newton Gresham Library on behalf of their siblings and Larkin family cousins, who are also the grandchildren of Grover McCormick.

“In my previous work at law firms as a legal researcher, I found my grandfather’s name in several cases he had taken to the U. S. Supreme Court,” Gilbert said. “But I did not know he was cited in Miranda until I saw it in my textbook.”

The Fifth Amendment, which protects individuals who have been accused of a crime from providing evidence that can be used against them, has been directly tied to the Miranda Warning.

But even before Miranda v. Arizona (1966) wherein the Supreme Court declared that all persons should be informed of their constitutional rights at the time of arrest, the prohibition of self-incrimination was tested in Ashcraft v. Tennessee (1944).

“My grandfather was Mr. Ashcraft’s defense attorney,” said Gilbert, who is now the director of development and alumni relations for SHSU’s College of Criminal Justice and a criminal justice adjunct faculty member.

Zelma Ashcraft had been found dead near her car on a Tennessee highway. Police charged her husband and interrogated him continuously for 36 hours while he faced a blinding light. He confessed that he had hired a 20-year-old man to commit the murder, and both were convicted.

Ashcraft appealed, claiming that he had been intimidated into implicating himself in the murder. The Supreme Court agreed and overturned his conviction on the grounds that his confession was coerced.

“In the Miranda decision, my grandfather’s earlier case was cited and used as a precedence, with the Supreme Court finding that interrogation involving ‘inherent coercion’ was not acceptable,” Gilbert said.

McCormick also served as entertainer Jerry Lee Lewis’s attorney during the time that Lewis’s marriage to his 13-year-old cousin had become known and causing a national uproar.

“The story goes that one Christmas Eve, Jerry Lee called our grandfather to come to New York immediately because he needed him to handle the trouble he was in,” Trigg said. “Grover told him to find himself a new boy because he was going to stay where he was and spend Christmas with his grandchildren.”

To the five children from the Trigg family and the six from the Larkin family, McCormick was first and foremost “Big Grover,” their beloved grandfather, who enjoyed spending as much time as he could with them, no matter the location.

“He had a corner office,” said Trigg. “In Memphis there is a place called Mud Island, which is now a park. We would watch small airplanes land at the airport there. Then we’d go next door and have lunch at the Piccadilly Cafeteria and afterward, we’d go to the Malco Theatre to watch a movie.”

McCormick also enjoyed quieter and calmer moments with his grandchildren.

“We had a family place, a farm-plantation that had been in the family for many years, and it was a great place to go fishing,” said Trigg. “Ever the dapper dresser, our grandfather would be outfitted as if he were going to trial. We’d be sitting in the boat, catching crappie, and Big Grover would be sitting with us wearing a coat, a tie—and a straw hat.”

“We were a close family then, and we still are,” Hauck said. “All the cousins are like brothers and sisters, and our grandfather loved us very much.”

McCormick practiced law until he died at the age of 80 in 1995. A truck hit him as he was walking to the courthouse from his office.

“Newspaper clippings relating to Grover’s work and letters that he had written through the years were in our grandparents’ house,” Trigg said. “When our grandmother passed away, they were boxed up and placed in our aunt’s attic. Our cousin Steve Larkin, from Atlanta, took them and organized them into a collection.

“It was amazing the wealth of information that was in those boxes,” Trigg said. “It was clear that Grover was a great orator and debater. The information details his life from his college experiences through his involvement with the Supreme Court.”

At Trigg’s suggestion, the cousins decided to place the materials with SHSU.

“I thought it was a good idea to donate them and have them put to good use, rather that letting them sit boxed up somewhere,” he said.

“We felt that Sam Houston State would be a good home for the items, not only because of the criminal justice program’s reputation, but because of Cutty’s connection,” he said. “She has her undergraduate and master’s degrees in criminal justice from Sam Houston. Also, she had done a lot of research on our grandfather over the years and has passed that information on to all the siblings and cousins.

“Her son, Mark Gilbert, also has a criminal justice degree from Sam Houston, so there is a strong family connection to the university,” he said.

The collection is particularly valuable because it shows not only the career path of someone who achieved success in their profession, but also a very personal side of how he got there, according to Felicia Williamson, head of Thomason Room Special Collections.

“We have letters between Mr. McCormick and his mother and his sisters, and they give an insight into his life at school, showing that he’s working hard and facing some of the same challenges that our students face today,” she said. “I think that it’s great for our students to see that success doesn’t come easy.

“We often get collections after a politician or lawyer or businessman has already ‘made it’ or ‘arrived,’ which is wonderful,” she said. “But I like to see the early years, when they are making the decisions that are getting them to where they are going, but aren’t there yet.

“This collection represents that,” she said. “We have some great depictions of his participation in social clubs and other things that were really important in the early 20th century. His letters show him being in the trenches and investing in his education.

“They also show the emotional side of his hard work,” she said. “He is away from home. His family misses him, and he misses them very much. They are all making sacrifices. I think our students will relate to this because there are many similarities to what they themselves are doing to reach their own education goals.”

Williamson also believes that the letters will provide a much-desired research resource for students that isn’t always available.

“I can’t tell you how many times we have students wanting primary-source materials—diaries, letters, photographs,” she said. “That’s because their professors know that when the students examine these personal things, the subject matter becomes more real to them and they get more out of their research. Any time we can help them find a different slice of the pie, we are excited to do that.”

In addition to the materials that have already been given to SHSU, the family plans to donate other items relating to McCormick’s life and career. Once everything has been catalogued, the collection will be shared with Erskine College, where McCormick received his undergraduate degree and was valedictorian of his graduating class.

The collection can be viewed in the Thomason Room, which is located on the fourth floor of the Newton Gresham Library, and is open Monday through Friday from 1-5 p.m., or by appointment.

 

 

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