The Innocents (1964)
by Edward D. Radin

Excerpt from Chapter 3 on

James Montgomery

None of the feelings that motivated Judge Frank's desire for justice was present in the notorious prosecution of James Montgomery, who spent twenty-five years in jail for a crime that never happened, railroaded to prison by the personal animosity of the district attorney.

For the start of this case we must go back to the early 1920s in Waukegan, Illinois, at the time a center for Ku Klux Klan activity in that area. James Montgomery was a Negro, hard-working, twenty-six years old, a war veteran, who had managed to amass enough money to purchase his own modest home and buy a second which he rented out.

The prosecutor was a member of the Klan. On the pretext that they were searching for an illegal still or bootleg whisky, members of the prosecutor's staff raided Montgomery's home and wrecked the interior. The damage was so substantial and so obviously out of line of duty that a court directed the prosecutor to pay money damages to Montgomery to repair his home.

The prosecutor's turn came on November 11, 1923, when Mamie Snow, sixty-two, who was considered a harmless mental incompetent and was allowed to peddle shoelaces and similar notions door to door, complained to police that Montgomery had raped her. She was sent to the Victory Memorial Hospital in Waukegan, where she was examined by Dr. John E. Walter. Montgomery was picked up by police and the court record notes twenty-six years later that he was beaten so severely that "scars on his face and head are still visible today." Montgomery denied the charge. The day after his arrest, when Miss Snow confronted Montgomery in the station house, she not only failed to identify him, but she said further that she had never before seen him.

The trial was held in January, 1924, and lasted twenty minutes. The physician who had examined Miss Snow was not called and there was virtually no defense. Montgomery did not take the stand. The defendant was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mamie Snow was committed to a mental institution and died there two years later.

In 1947 Luis Kutner, a Chicago attorney who has freed more than a thousand illegally convicted prisoners, was urged to make an investigation into the Montgomery case. His inquiry took more than two years to run down the various witnesses, and then he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus before Judge Igoe in the United States District Court in Chicago.

Among the facts that Kutner established was that Mamie Snow had never been raped. The medical examination had shown that she was a virgin; the doctor's report had been submitted to police and to the prosecutor.

The defense counsel had been warned by Klan members not to put up any kind of defense for Montgomery. Even though he had twelve witnesses to prove that Montgomery had been miles away at the time of the alleged attack, the lawyer feared for his life and did not call these witnesses. In addition, the prosecutor personally threatened Montgomery with Klan reprisal if he should take the stand in his own defense. After his arrest, when Montgomery wanted a preliminary hearing in order to be released on bail, the prosecutor frightened him off by saying the Klan would get him if he were released.

Dr. Walter testified at the hearing before Judge Igoe, producing his records made at the time of the hospital examination of Miss Snow.

The court spent six weeks studying the evidence in the case. Judge Igoe lashed out at the conduct of the prosecutor, who was dead, stating that he knew the charge was false and had wrongfully used it to convict Montgomery.

"A prosecutor is supposed to be an impartial representative of public justice," Judge Igoe said. "The methods employed by the prosecutor at Lake County in 1924 represents as shocking a situation as was ever before presented before this court. A society cannot inspire respect for the law by withholding its protection from those accused of crimes . . . There is one way to stop a practice that has become altogether too common and that is to bring it to a conscious level where the public can scrutinize it and take such steps as are necessary to insure a true rendition of justice to all . . . There was no trial here but a sham, one of false pretenses and fraud."

Montgomery was released in August, 1949. Although he brought suit against the state for his illegal conviction and imprisonment, the Illinois Court of Claims refused to make any payment on the ground that the prosecutor was a county official and the state had no responsibility for his conduct. For many years after that legislation was introduced to compensate Montgomery, but no bill succeeded in passing.