Fight for Rights: The Chicago 1919 Riots and the Struggle for Black Justice

"A Gross Outrage"

In the end, the Illinois Supreme Court denied the appeal and affirmed Colvin and Johnson's convictions.

In its opinion, the court considered and rejected three separate arguments for reversing the verdict against Colvin and Johnson.

The first argument related to the claim that Colvin and Johnson had been tortured into confessing. After noting that both Colvin and Johnson claimed they were mistreated at the hands of the police, the court admitted: 

If this testimony, or a considerable part of it, was true a gross outrage was committed, which not only deserves the severest condemnation, but which would exclude as evidence any admissions [i.e., confessions] obtained by such means.

But the court concluded Colvin and Johnson's testimony could not be true. The court noted that witnesses for the state denied beating either Colvin or Johnson. The court ignored the fact that only a few of the officers and lawyers who were apparently involved in the interviews testified at trial, even though that meant that not everyone who might have beaten Colvin or Johnson was questioned under oath. 

The court also pointed out that at trial Johnson offered no physical evidence of the beating he claimed he had suffered, with no explanation for the assumption that Johnson would still bear signs of a beating he suffered a month after it occurred.

Additionally, the court relied on the fact that jurors were given two separate instructions asking them to consider the reliability of the confessions in reaching their decisions but still found Colvin and Johnson guilty.

Illinois courts often relied on jury verdicts to justify convictions based on confessions that defendants claimed were the result of torture or coercion. They did so on the theory that jurors were best able to judge the honesty of various witnesses and assess guilt. Unfortunately, recent scholarship suggests that racial and ethnic bias can taint jury verdicts.

The Illinois Supreme Court's opinion implied that the claims of police torture were so unusual that they were hard to believe.

Yet the court knew better. People in Chicago had been claiming they confessed after being tortured (typically they used the terms "third degree," or “sweating”) since the turn of the century. And in the past couple years prior to this case, the claims had strengthened to the point that several trial judges in Chicago had begun to call for an investigation. 

This page has paths:

This page references: