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The failure of the state’s attorney to turn over vital evidence to the court resulted in the conviction of James Montgomery, a 30-year-old black man, on January 9, 1924, in Waukegan, Illinois, for the rape of 62-year-old Mamie Snow.
James Montgomery – a married man, property owner and veteran of World War I, with no previous police record – was identified by Ms. Snow, an itinerant Waukegan resident who made a living selling shoelaces from door to door, as the man who had assaulted and raped her in a darkened shack in the “negro section” of Waukegan. She claimed that on November 15, 1923, she had been selling doughnuts in that area when Montgomery asked her to come to his house to see his sick wife. He told her that he was the caretaker of Oakwood Cemetery and led her to a shack on that property where he raped her. She claimed that she managed to escape when a passerby heard the sound of the struggle.
Montgomery was sentenced to life imprisonment, with his conviction based solely on identification by the victim. No witnesses appeared for the defense, including twelve people who were willing to testify that Montgomery had been far from the scene of the alleged crime.
In 1949, Montgomery brought a habeas corpus action against Joseph E. Ragen, warden of Stateville prison in Joliet, Illinois, where he had been incarcerated for 25 years. Montgomery claimed that he had exhausted all state remedies and his 20-year statute of limitation for writ of error had expired. He asked that Chicago attorney Luis Kutner represent him.
In his writ, Montgomery claimed that the crime of rape had not been committed against Ms. Snow and that the prosecuting authorities suppressed the evidence of an examination by Dr. John E. Walter, made immediately following the alleged attack on Ms. Snow, in which he stated that she had not been raped and was, in fact, a virgin. He also claimed that Dr. Walter should have been called as a witness for the defense, and that he believed his attorney had been frightened by the Lake County State’s Attorney, A.V. Smith, who threatened retaliation by the Ku Klux Klan. Montgomery stated that while at the police station following his arrest, he was assaulted by the police, who beat him, leaving scars on his face and forehead. He also related that on the morning after his arrest, he was presented to Ms. Snow, who stated that, “I never saw this fellow before in my life,” although she had previously picked him out of a group of black men as her assailant.
At the hearing of the writ on August 10, 1949, Montgomery testified that following his arrest, when he sought his liberty on bond, he was told by Thomas Kennedy, the Waukegan Chief of Police that: “You know if you were in Georgia or Mississippi we would turn you over to the Ku Klux Klan. We are liable to do that now, because I am a member.” Dr. Walter testified that on November 15, 1923, he had been called to the hospital to examine Mamie Snow, who had reported that she had been attacked and raped. He stated that he found no evidence of rape and that he had known Ms. Snow for some time and believed that she was mentally irresponsible. He also stated that his report had been communicated to the police. Based on the revelations contained in the petition, Federal District Judge Michael L. Igoe ordered Montgomery’s immediate release, finding as an uncontroverted fact that threats of reprisal by the Ku Klux Klan were used to prevent Montgomery or his counsel from presenting any defense witnesses at the trial. Judge Igoe found that the issue at the trial “was not the guilt or innocence of the accused, but that of racial subjugation.”
Immediately following Montgomery’s release, two of Mamie Snow’s relatives notified the state’s attorney that they had been with Ms. Snow when she returned from the hospital and that Dr. Walter had done a second examination at her home. At a hearing before Hearing Commissioner George B. Tearney of the Illinois Court of Claims, Mrs. Grace Hough and Ralph E. Pierce testified that Dr. Walter had stated, upon reexamination, “This is rape and a brutal attack.” Dr. J.H. Blanks, health physician of Zion, also examined Ms. Snow and agreed that she had been raped, they said. Robert C. Eardley, assistant attorney general in charge of the Chicago office, said the testimony of Ms. Hough and Pierce could only be presented if Judge Igoe granted a reopening of the case.
Judge Igoe commented that the evidence presented on Montgomery’s behalf was not contradicted in his court, and added: “Apparently the attorney general’s office made no investigation of this matter whatsoever. So what am I supposed to do? I ruled on the facts as presented to me.”
Montgomery, who upon release was handed $10.00 by a representative of the prison, the sum given all inmates when discharged, filed suit against the state for false imprisonment, seeking $250,000. The claim was denied. Ms. Snow had died some years earlier in a mental institution.
– Researched by Dolores Kennedy
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.