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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The verdict of a coroner's jury wasn't binding on the state's attorney or the grand jury. "It didn't restrict our ability to charge an offense, or some other offense, or nothing at all," DiVito says.

Two weeks after the inquest, a state's attorney brought the Henson case to the grand jury.

Grand jurors, perplexed by the system they're called to serve for a month, almost always follow the lead of the prosecutor who presents the case. If the prosecutor wants an indictment on the pending charge, he or she will get the indictment—a good prosecutor, as the saying goes, can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.

If a mob of 20 black youths, some armed with guns, had an altercation with two young white men, a reduction from murder to manslaughter perhaps would have interested the city's newspapers.

In the grand jury room in the criminal courthouse at 26th and California, a police officer usually summarizes, in five minutes or less, the evidence supporting the charges against the accused. Then the police officer, the prosecutor who questioned him, and the court reporter leave the room; the 16 jurors vote; and the jury foreperson calls the prosecutor and court reporter back in the room and announces another "true bill" of indictment.

A prosecutor had Price testify before the grand jury, along with another witness to the shooting, an 18-year-old woman. Grand jury proceedings are secret. I was unable to get a transcript of the hearing, and I couldn't track down the woman. However, she'd told detectives after Henson was shot that she'd seen one of the two black men—Henson, she thought—shoot at the white boys. This was at odds with the physical evidence known to police (no gun found on Henson or Price), as well as the accounts offered by other witnesses, including Schickel and Fehil themselves, not to mention the conclusions of the detectives and the assistant state's attorneys who took the statements.

The grand jury indicted the three defendants for involuntary manslaughter.

I asked Daniel Coyne, a veteran criminal defense lawyer and a clinical law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, to read the police reports and the statements given by Schickel and Swanson. Coyne, who's specialized in murder cases during his 27-year career, was puzzled by the reduction to manslaughter. "The reports indicate that Schickel and Swanson gave statements that this was an intentional act," he said. "Schickel directed Swanson to retrieve the guns, Swanson returned with them, Schickel said he fired when they came out of the alley."

If a mob of 20 or 25 black youths, some armed with guns, had an altercation with two young white men, armed with a stick and a pipe—and one of the white men was slain—a reduction of charge from murder to manslaughter perhaps would have interested the city's newspapers. The reduction of the charge in Henson's case was ignored.

A family court judge ruled that William Swanson, though a juvenile, could be tried as an adult for the Henson slaying. On February 17, 1971, Swanson plead guilty in adult court to involuntary manslaughter.

Assistant state's attorney Sheldon Sorosky summed up the evidence against Swanson for Judge Louis Giliberto, including Swanson's admission that, on Schickel's direction, he'd picked up two guns and brought them to Justine. Sorosky said Swanson had acknowledged giving the guns to "various people," one of them Schickel.

Sorosky told the judge that at about 9:10 PM, Henson and Price, who were by themselves, encountered a group "of a much greater number" on Justine Street, and "there was a confrontation between the two groups." Swanson "was at the side of Mr. Schickel," Sorosky said. "The evidence would also reflect that neither Joseph Henson nor Leotha Price had any weapons or guns upon their person nor did they brandish any at that time. And that Mr. Schickel fired his gun, killing Joseph Henson."

Sorosky's assertion that Henson and Price were unarmed didn't square with what prosecutors knew about the stick and the pipe. What's even odder about the plea deal is that Sorosky's synopsis suggested an intentional act by Swanson and Schickel, not a reckless one.

But a plea deal with Swanson had been struck, and the lawyers and judge seemed unconcerned with the details. Swanson's lawyer, Irwin Frazin, stipulated to Sorosky's account, and Judge Giliberto accepted Swanson's plea.

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