Bright lights, big lies

In 1938, Robert Nixon was arrested in Chicago for the murder of Florence Johnson, the white wife of a Chicago firefighter. Nixon, who was black, was ultimately convicted of Johnson’s murder, chiefly on the basis of his own confession.

At trial, and then on appeal, Nixon and his attorneys claimed that Nixon had been tortured into confessing. Nixon claimed that detectives at police headquarters at 11th and State had beaten him while he hung by his cuffed wrists, threatened to drop him from a open window, and questioned him in a fifth floor room under very hot lights.

At trial, more than twenty members of the police department took the stand to deny torturing, or seeing anyone else torture, Nixon.  Several of the officers who had contact with Nixon during the period he was in custody were not called to testify; others made claims that contradicted the testimony of other officers.

One witness for the state, Emmet Evans, specifically addressed Nixon’s claim he was interrogated under very hot lights. Evans testified that the fifth floor of police headquarters held the police department’s photography room. Pressed to agree that meant that there were powerful lamps in the room, Evans said there were not.

Evans’ claim seems doubtful. The Chicago Police Department Annual Report for 1930 included several pages of photographs of the new police headquarters at 11th and State. One of the rooms shown in the report was the photography room, on the building’s fifth floor. The picture makes it clear that the room had special lights for photography (page 48).

At trial, and on appeal, jurors and judges believed the police officers, and discounted Nixon’s claims of torture. Nixon was executed in 1939. He was not yet 20 years old.


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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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