More light

The image of a suspect being questioned under a bright, hot light is the stuff of film noir movies like Laura where the protagonist was questioned under the steady beam of bright lights in the interrogation room, screwball comedies like His Girl Friday, and even a Seinfeld episode.

But interrogation under blinding hot lights was not just a cinematic metaphor that became a joke, the Wickersham Commission reported that police in Memphis, Tennessee interrogated a reporter under bright lights in 1931 (Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, p. 256).  The practice seems to have been used in Chicago, as well, where  Robert Nixon was not the only suspect in the years before World War II to claim he was interrogated under hot lights. Frank Kolesiak, suspected in an arson case, said he was interrogated under hot lights by a Fire Marshall in 1938 (Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1938). Two years later, Carl Ericsson said that the police officers at the East Chicago station shackled him to a chair and questioned him under bright, hot lights (Chicago Tribune, February 12, 1940).

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.

Continue reading Bright lights, big lies