A wrongful conviction from 1919

Today, Sunday October 2, is international #WrongfulConvictionDay. To mark the day, and start a week of recording wrongful convictions from Chicago, I want to start with a case I wrote about in depth in my recent open-access book.

To make a long, convoluted story of injustice short, in the fall of 1919 two Black teens were arrested and charged with the murder of a white peddler during the Chicago Race Riot. The only evidence against them was a confession one of the teens, Walter Colvin, claimed he was tortured into giving, and the testimony of a white woman who admitted she could not tell Black people apart. Not surprisingly, her testimony changed repeatedly under oath, one day she identified on person as the killer, another day she identified another. But the jury convicted, anyway, and both were sentenced to life in prison.

Several African American lawyer pressed to get the teens’ convictions reversed, offering statements from other witnesses that contradicted testimony tying them to the crime. But neither the trial judge nor the Illinois Supreme Court paid those claims any heed. Both Walter Colvin and Charles Johnson went to prison.

It took nearly fifteen years to get the injustice righted. But then, the parole board granted them parole finding that the evidence against the two did not sustain their convictions. It added, the “feeling against [their] race was very bitter on account of the riot and it was not difficult to obtain a conviction.” But while they were able to leave prison, their convictions have never been reversed.


Writer. Formerly civil rights attorney. Currently professor. Working on new book about mental disability and criminal law in the 20th century.

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