In the early 20th century, Joe James, a black man, was convicted and executed for murdering a white man in Springfield, Illinois, following the Springfield Race Riot of 1908. Now, 115 years after his death, lawyers and law students from Northwestern and Northeastern Universities are seeking a posthumous pardon . on his behalf.
The petition, filed by Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) and Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), claims that James was denied a fair trial because he was forced to stand trial. an all-white jury in Sangamon County, where two black men had recently been lynched, hundreds of black businesses and residences had been destroyed by an angry white mob, and racial tensions were high.
“James’ factual innocence is not the subject of this petition because the passage of time and the destruction of evidence have made it impossible to conclusively prove that James was innocent,” said Steve Drizin, co-director of Northwestern’s CWC.
The Illinois Prisoner Review Board will hear arguments April 11-13 before making a nonbinding recommendation to Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, who has the final say on whether to grant James a pardon.
“Throughout history, we’ve seen white juries not only convict and execute black people based on insufficient evidence, but also acquit white people who murdered black people in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt,” said Margaret Burnham, a civil rights attorney and founder of director of Northeastern Law’s CRRJ. “This double standard operated in Springfield in 1908, infecting Springfield’s criminal justice system and depriving James of a fair trial.”