The color of his skin | Feature | Chicago Reader

The color of his skin 

A missing gun, a wavering prosecution, and decades of regret.
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Cynicism about criminal justice was entrenched among African-Americans in Chicago in 1970, and it wasn't paranoia. Glaring inequities dated at least to 1919, the year of Chicago's biggest race riot. The riot started with the drowning of a black youth in Lake Michigan—he was stoned by whites after he floated into waters the whites felt were theirs—and the refusal of police to arrest the offenders. A commission that investigated the subsequent violence determined that whites were responsible for the vast majority of it—but most of those jailed and prosecuted were blacks.

For decades after that, blacks in Chicago who tried moving into white neighborhoods were beaten and stoned, and their homes were bombed or set on fire. Police rarely found the culprits, and prosecutors often deemed the evidence insufficient when they did.

There seemed to be an unwritten code of injustice regarding interracial violence—a code acknowledged by criminal court judges interviewed by the 1919 riot commission, though they blamed the disparity on juries. "A white person on trial is less liable to conviction if the prosecuting witnesses are all colored," Judge George Kersten said. Judge Hugo Pam added: "In the more serious crimes, where a hold-up is committed or guns are used, I think there is great prejudice. Where a white man will be found guilty of manslaughter, a colored man will be found guilty of murder."

Consider what happened in 1968 less than a mile and a half from where Joe Henson was slain: On an October evening that year, a tavern at 65th and Ashland was robbed of $250 by two armed black men. Off-duty police officer Louis Pote, who was white, learned of the robbery, and picked up five black males off a street corner. He drove them to the tavern and asked the bartender which of the five were the robbers. None of them, the bartender said. Pote took his suspects outside, and, one-by-one, ordered them to run. He fired a warning shot as each ran. The last to run was 15-year-old Harold Davis. Pote shot him in the back, killing him.

Pote told investigating officers that Davis was one of the robbers and he'd shot him fleeing the robbery. When other witnesses—including police officers—contradicted Pote's account, he was charged with murder. The case was still pending when Henson was killed, but in December 1972 a jury convicted Pote—not of murder, but of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to two to six years.

In December 1969, just six months before Henson was killed, police officers assigned to the state's attorney's office raided a west-side apartment and shot to death Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. The state's attorney's office charged the seven occupants of the apartment who survived the raid, including four who were wounded, with attempted murder. State's attorney Edward Hanrahan told reporters that his officers had come under a Panther barrage and had shown "considerable restraint" in their response. A federal grand jury determined that the Panthers had fired one shot, and police had fired 82 to 99 shots, half of them from a submachine gun. Prosecutors reluctantly dropped the charges against the survivors. In 1971, Hanrahan was charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice for misconduct related to the raid, but he ultimately was acquitted.

"What were you going to do?" the juror asked.
"We were going to look for them."
"To do what?"
"To get it over with."

Like Joe Henson, Fred Hampton was 21 when he was slain. And, like Henson, Hampton had a child on the way. Fred Hampton Jr. was born three weeks after his father was killed. He grew up a few blocks west of Jo Ann Henson. Partly because of their similar histories, they became friends; both felt aggrieved by the response of the legal system to their fathers' slayings.

State's attorney Hanrahan was condemned by black leaders after the raid. In May 1970, the state's black legislators demanded he quit. "Justice cannot be obtained while he is in office," their statement said. In March 1972, the Chicago chapter of the NAACP blasted Hanrahan's "failure to convict criminals who prey in the black community." And in November 1972 he was voted out of office, thanks largely to the city's black wards, which voted overwhelmingly for Republican Bernard Carey.

Did the bad blood between Hanrahan and black leaders affect his office's prosecution of white-on-black crimes? Gino DiVito, an assistant state's attorney then, insists it didn't. "I never felt any racial prejudice in the office," says DiVito, who was a prosecutor from 1963 through 1977, then became a highly regarded judge at the trial and appellate levels for 20 years. Hanrahan, DiVito says, "never had any racial motivations."

The case against the three defendants charged with killing Henson had its first hearing on August 14, 1970—an inquest at the coroner's office. A jury of six convened to determine the cause and manner of Henson's death.

Cook County no longer has such inquests—they were done away with in 1976, when the county switched from an elected coroner to an appointed forensic pathologist. The inquest system had been widely criticized before the change. Dr. Victor Levine, a Chicago pathologist who once worked for the coroner's office, told the Tribune in 1970 that inquests were conducted by "a rutabaga-head deputy coroner" with "six cabbage-heads for jurors." The jurors were mostly elderly men and women "who sit on the juries year after year because they are friends of the coroner or someone in county government," the Tribune article said.

In response to my Freedom of Information Act request, the Cook County Medical Examiner's office located the records of the Henson inquest, including a transcript of the hearing, and made them available to me last week. The first witness at the hearing, detective Paul Parizanski, summarized for the jurors the evidence against the defendants, including Swanson's admission that he'd brought guns to the scene and Schickel's admission that he'd fired the .22 in the direction of Henson and Price when they emerged from the alley. The pellet recovered from Henson's body had a "six right twist," Parizanski said—grooves corresponding with the gun Schickel turned in. A pathologist had determined that the bullet passed through Henson's heart and lung.

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