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.

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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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