November 15

This Day in History

Crime

Nov 15, 1923:

Accused of rape, James Montgomery's struggle for justice begins

Mamie Snow, a mentally disabled white woman from Waukegan, Illinois, claims that James Montgomery, a black veteran, factory worker, and homeowner raped her. Montgomery, who was promptly thrown in jail, spent more than 25 years in prison before his conviction was overturned and he was released.

From the start, Montgomery's trial seemed ill fated. Local Ku Klux Klan members threatened Montgomery's lawyer during the proceedings, and, in 1923, after a weak defense and a trial that took less than a day, Montgomery was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

While serving time, Montgomery studied the law in an attempt to prove his innocence. In 1946, he convinced civil rights attorney Luis Kutner to investigate his case. Kutner discovered a medical report from Snow's hospital stay revealing that not only was Snow never raped, she was likely a virgin. Kutner also located additional evidence suggesting that the Klan had framed Montgomery and that prosecutors had withheld the medical evidence from the defense. Nonetheless, it took Kutner three more years to have the unjust conviction overturned. Montgomery was finally released in August 1949.

This case of wrongful imprisonment is not an isolated incident for Illinois. Between 1977 and 1999, the state released 11 people from death row because they had been wrongly convicted.

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