Reclaiming a Lost History

Between 1871, the year of the Chicago Fire, and 1971, hundreds of people claimed they were tortured as part of a criminal investigation in Chicago. The recent history of torture in Chicago is well known, but the history of those older claims has been lost. That loss limits our understanding of more recent claims and our ability to adequately respond to them.

This blog is designed to help reclaim that lost history. It builds on my recent book, Robert Nixon and Police Torture in Chicago, 1871-1971 (NIU Press, 2016), expanding on that study to record the individual stories of the claims of torture and the people who made them.

It is also intended to connect the present to those lost moments in the past. So this site will also try to capture current accounts of torture and misconduct that bear witness to those older patterns.

I hope you will believe in law enforcement (Part 1)

In January 1953, James Grant was acquitted of rape after a post-conviction hearing in a Chicago courtroom. Grant, a 60-year-old Black man, already had served 27 years of his life sentence.

The trial judge, Frank Leonard, denounced the verdict and the jury that entered it. “I hope,” he told the jury “in the future you will believe in law enforcement.”

The story of that case, which I will tell in a series of blog posts over the next several days, is with considering for several reasons. Grant’s original trial and conviction in 1925 offers a glimpse of how racist the criminal courts in Chicago could be in the decade after the 1919 race riots. Reaction to his post-conviction acquittal in the 1950s suggests that that problem had not dissipated in the quarter century that followed.

But the process by which he was acquitted, a post-conviction hearing allowed by the Illinois Post-Conviction Hearing Act, is also worth learning about. That Act, passed in response to criticism by the United States Supreme Court, was supposed to help people whose convictions rested on constitutional violations. Yet Judge Leonard’s hostile reaction to Grant’s acquittal was echoed by other judges faced with other petitions for post-conviction relief. And that reaction tells us something important about the judiciary’s role in delaying and resisting criminal justice reform.


Source: “Acquitted of Rape after 27 Years,” Chicago Defender, January 17, 1953, 9.

Surveillance in Chicago

Chicago is one of the top cities in the US for surveillance cameras. But

Kenneth Johnson, police commander of the Englewood district in Chicago, said that residents shouldn’t be concerned about privacy because the cameras are out in the open in public places. “This isn’t a secret. This isn’t an Orwellian ‘Big Brother,’” he told the New York Times last year.