Lawyering in the Lion's Mouth: The Story of S.D. Redmond and Pruitt v. State

49 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2013 Last revised: 8 May 2014

See all articles by Mary Ellen Maatman

Mary Ellen Maatman

Widener University Delaware Law School

Date Written: April 2, 2013


Lawyering in the Lion’s Mouth: The Story of S.D. Redmond and Pruitt v. State unearths a forgotten case with facts worthy of a William Faulkner novel. Set in rural Mississippi, the case involved alleged interracial adultery and infanticide. Luella Williamson, a white woman who killed her baby, told authorities that an African American man named Ervin Pruitt was the child’s father, and claimed he told her to kill the child for fear he would be lynched. She pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Her alleged lover, who denied both the relationship and any involvement in the infant’s death, was tried for murder. A jury convicted him after ten minutes’ deliberation, and he was sentenced to death.

Dramatic as these facts are, the article’s focal point is the work of the remarkable lawyer whom the NAACP hired to appeal Ervin Pruitt’s case to the Supreme Court of Mississippi. S.D. Redmond was one of a handful of African American lawyers in Mississippi, which in itself was a remarkable achievement. All the more remarkable was that he was also a highly successful businessman, as well as a physician, and was then one of the wealthiest African Americans in the United States. Redmond’s success was something of a double-edged sword, as he risked white resentment. In fact, he was twice subjected to disbarment proceedings, one of which concluded not long before he accepted the case of Pruitt v. State.

Just as Redmond had to handle himself carefully in his business dealings, he had to be very careful in his representation of Ervin Pruitt. The case implicated Pruitt in the commission of three taboos: adultery, interracial intimacy, and infanticide. Moreover, the facts of the case meant that that Redmond had to challenge core tenets of white supremacy to argue that Mrs. Williamson’s word could not be trusted, the baby was not necessarily Pruitt’s, and, in fact, was not necessarily even African American. To press these arguments, Redmond had to challenge dominant white beliefs that African Americans should never contradict whites, all white women were pure, racial categories were distinct, and racial identifications were unassailable. Given the formidable challenges of the case, Redmond was not able to win a reversal for Ervin Pruitt. Nonetheless, his brief was a success. His arguments gained two strong dissents, which Redmond leveraged to gain Pruitt a commutation to a life sentence.

This article examines his brief and analyzes his use of rhetoric and legal strategy to press these arguments upon his audience in a way that made them palatable. I argue that Redmond’s rather unorthodox brief in fact was an ingeniously constructed document that handled the taboos and challenges encompassed by Pruitt’s case by simultaneously paying lip service to Jim Crow etiquette and subversively undermining the tenets that demanded that etiquette. In so doing, he followed the exhortation in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, to “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. . . . [O]vercome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”

Keywords: African-American attorneys, race, murder, S.D. Redmond, Ervin Pruitt, criminal law, Mississippi, infanticide, legal history, legal writing

JEL Classification: K14, K40

Suggested Citation

Maatman, Mary Ellen, Lawyering in the Lion's Mouth: The Story of S.D. Redmond and Pruitt v. State (April 2, 2013). Mississippi Law Journal, Vol. 83, 2014, Widener Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-13, Available at SSRN:

Mary Ellen Maatman (Contact Author)

Widener University Delaware Law School ( email )

4601 Concord Pike
Wilmington, DE 19803-0406
United States
302-477-2198 (Phone)
302-477-2255 (Fax)


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