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

People v. Colvin, et al

In September 1919, Walter Colvin, Charles Johnson, Frank Coachman, and John Green were brought to the criminal court at 54 West Hubbard Street, just north of the Chicago River, to be tried for the murder of Casmiro Lazzeroni. Although none had criminal records, all four were set to be tried as adults.

When they first appeared in court on September 16, a month after their indictment, Judge Joseph Sabath granted a motion to have John Green and Frank Coachman tried separately from Walter Colvin and Charles Johnson. Then, after Colvin and Johnson entered pleas of not guilty, twelve jurors, all of them white men, were selected to hear the case against them.

Their trial began the next day. James C. O’Brien, one of the stars in the state’s attorney’s office, represented the state, along with a second attorney, John W. Beckwith.

Over the course of the trial, four attorneys, Benjamin G. Pollard, Chester W. De Armond, James G. Cotter, and A.L. Williams, appeared for Walter Colvin and Charles Johnson. Each of the four were Black; all were leaders in the Cook County Bar Association. The forty-eight-year-old Cotter had been an assistant attorney general until he was fired for complaining that Governor Lowden wanted to segregate Chicago after the race riots. Williams, who was forty-one, had monitored the hearings before the coroner’s jury for the Cook County Bar Association.

Chester De Armond, the oldest of the group, was Cotter’s father-in-law. Although he had tried several cases with his son-in-law, he was the least experienced attorney on the trial team, having only finished law school in 1915. But he lived just around the corner from the scene of the murder, at the Angelus Apartments on Thirty-Fifth Street and Wabash Avenue; he was certainly familiar with the area around Thirty-Sixth and State Streets and may have known Colvin or Johnson's families.

The thirty-three-year-old Pollard, the youngest of the four, was a Howard graduate who served as secretary of the Cook County Bar in 1919. 

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