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In Virginia, reopening a 125-year-old case rights a historical injustice

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A judge ruled this week in an unusual case that dates back more than a century. In 1898, a Black man from Charlottesville, Va., was lynched. After he died, a grand jury indicted him for sexual assault. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports on an effort to reevaluate the evidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

SANDY HAUSMAN, BYLINE: In the shade of an old oak tree, a plaque outside the Albemarle County Courthouse in downtown Charlottesville tells the story of John Henry James, a Black man who had lived in the area for about five years, sold ice cream for a living, and was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman.

JIM HINGELEY: He was taken into custody, and he was removed from Albemarle County to spend the night because of a fear that there would be racial violence directed toward him.

HAUSMAN: That's Jim Hingeley, a local prosecutor, who says that the following day, James was headed back to Charlottesville for a hearing when a mob of about 150 white men stopped the train on which he was riding.

HINGELEY: He was taken to a nearby locust tree, lynched, and then, his body was shot. And word came to the grand jury that he was killed. Despite that, the grand jury issued the indictment.

HAUSMAN: This week, to bring some justice to James, he took the case to court asking to have the indictment thrown out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHERYL HIGGINS: Mr. Hingeley, we are here on your motion. The court is prepared for you. You may proceed.

HAUSMAN: Judge Cheryl Higgins listened as he explained that evidence in the case was thin and contradictory. There was even doubt as to whether a rape had occurred. Yet a grand jury, 125 years ago, decided to indict a dead man. University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt studied the case and gave testimony. She believes grand jury members were trying to protect the mob from charges of murder.

JALANE SCHMIDT: Yeah, I think it was a signal from the grand jury to law enforcement - hey, don't even bother to investigate this. You know, we've got this taken care of. Let's just move on.

HAUSMAN: But the Black community in Charlottesville did not move on. They remembered James, and many were in the crowded courtroom this week. They sat quietly as Judge Higgins rendered her decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HIGGINS: The indictment was never intended to be and did not serve as an instrument of justice. Instead, it was used corruptly to sanction the racial terror lynching of John Henry James. The motion to dismiss is granted.

(APPLAUSE)

HAUSMAN: Outside the courthouse, civil rights activist Freeman Allan rejoiced.

FREEMAN ALLAN: Justice finally has come to John Henry James, and it is a redemption, in many ways, for Albemarle County and for Charlottesville.

HAUSMAN: But for Robert Trent Vinson, chairman of African American studies at the University of Virginia, the decision was bittersweet.

ROBERT TRENT VINSON: While I'm happy for this indictment being removed after 125 years, I'm still in mourning for the fact that this man, John Henry James, lost his life in the first place.

HAUSMAN: Some people hope this case serves as a warning to law enforcement today. Professor Schmidt says the police chief and sheriff were present when John Henry James was lynched. Nearly a century later, in August of 2017, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville. And officers again failed to protect people of color.

SCHMIDT: Right here, you know, right where we're standing here, this is where white supremacists beat up members of this community and racial justice activists. And the police stood idly by and watched it happen.

HAUSMAN: For his part, Jim Hingeley hopes the case of John Henry James prompts Americans to work harder to end racial injustice.

For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Charlottesville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLAH-LAS, "HOUSTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.