Retrial of Manslaughter Charges
101 years ago in March of 1915 Jerry Johnson was tried for the second time for the death of Abraham Dyson. The first trial had ended in a hung jury on December 6, 1914. Jerry Johnson had been in the McLean County jail since September of 1914 when the incident took place.
Jerry Johnson, an African American man, was walking on Washington Street near the train overpass and the gas works with his friend Frances Johnson, when they approached a group of seven or eight white men who were sitting along the fence and the sidewalk. Naturally, this story has several viewpoints and the case was tried thoroughly in the Pantagraph before the court testimony took place. The exchange took place around 11:00 at night, so darkness also obscured the recollections. Mr. Johnson alleged that he asked the men to move so that he and Mrs. Johnson could pass and that the men did let Mrs. Johnson pass, but then prevented him from passing, using racial slurs, throwing rocks and using clubs on him. He happened to have a pistol with him and fired indiscriminately into the crowd two or three times. The testimony from the other men was that they (very politely) let the two pass and that Johnson suddenly turned on them and began shooting. This story would change in small ways through out the newspaper coverage and the trial testimony reported in the paper.
The first trial ended in a hung jury, with six jurors for acquittal and six for a guilty verdict. The composition of the jury is not known. There is no indication in the newspaper accounts whether there were any African Americans on the jury. It had been the law since 1880 that African Americans were denied equal protection of the law if African Americans were excluded from the jury "by state law" -- but apparently not if it was only the actual practice. So theoretically, some of the people on the jury could have been African American. The second jury did not have the same problem disagreeing jurors -- within two hours the jury had decided the fate of Jerry Johnson and he was sent to Joliet for an "indeterminate" sentence.
Whether the fact that the first jury "hung" is an indication that Mr. Johnson at least had the benefit of being thought "innocent until proven guilty" is unknown at this point in history. No further word was ever heard of Mr. Johnson in the Pantagraph. It was also interesting to note that when Mr. Johnson was sent to Joliet, a letter advocating for him, and urging the parole board to consider him for parole as soon as possible was also sent.