The color of his skin | Feature | Chicago Reader

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The color of his skin

A missing gun, a wavering prosecution, and decades of regret.
Part 2 of 2.

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Sorosky said Swanson had no prior convictions, and recommended a sentence of two to five years. Frazin said Swanson was attending school, and working, and was "a different type of boy than he was at the time that this happened. I think that Mr. Swanson has learned a lesson, a very valuable lesson. I think he realizes that he will continue to pay for this not just during the term of whatever your honor sentences him to, but probably for the rest of his life." He asked the judge for the minimum sentence.

The other prosecutor, Laurence Bolon, introduced Henson's mother and Leotha Price to Judge Giliberto. The judge asked Ethel Henson if she wished to say anything.

"He won't get no more than two to five years?" she asked.

Giliberto told her that was correct.

"What about the other two boys?"

Giliberto explained that they'd be prosecuted at a later date. He then sentenced Swanson to two to five years in the juvenile division of the Department of Corrections. (Corrections officials were unable to ascertain how much time he actually served, but under Illinois sentencing law at the time, he'd have been eligible for parole after a year.)

When I show the transcript of Swanson's plea deal to Jo Ann Henson, she's especially struck by her grandmother's question to the judge—"He won't get no more than two to five years?" The plea deal "had to be a slap in the face for her," Jo Ann tells me. "She's saying, 'Is that all the time he's getting?'"

In May 1971, the state's theory of what Schickel was guilty of seems to have changed again. The state dropped the involuntary manslaughter charge against him and reindicted him for voluntary manslaughter. A person commits voluntary manslaughter when he believes he's acting in self-defense, but his belief is unreasonable. The sentencing range for voluntary manslaughter was one to 20 years.

Schickel and Fehil were tried in March 1972 in the courtroom of Judge Kenneth Wendt. Drawing Wendt was a break for Schickel and Fehil, because Wendt was a judge who zealously guarded the rights of defendants. One of the trial prosecutors was Anthony Onesto, who has long since been in private practice. Onesto says he doesn't recall the trial, but he does recall that Wendt "didn't find too many people guilty." The year Schickel and Fehil were tried, the Tribune blasted Wendt's acquittal of two patronage workers a Tribune task force had caught fixing driver's tests. "Justice is blind," the paper said. "So, apparently, is Judge Kenneth Wendt of Criminal Court. Seldom have we seen evidence so blithely overlooked."

"Do I hate them? No. You damage yourself spiritually if you hate someone. In that era, and with all the racism, was there really someone to blame?" —Leotha Price, who was with Joe Henson when he was slain

There was also no love lost between Wendt and state's attorney Hanrahan, both now dead. Hanrahan complained, repeatedly and publicly, about the judge's decisions, calling Wendt "the worst judge on the bench" and "unfit to serve as a judge."

Schickel and Fehil waived their right to a jury, placing their fates in Wendt's hands. After hearing testimony from police officers and several of the eyewitnesses over two days, Wendt acquitted both defendants. The Tribune—the only newspaper to cover the trial—observed in its four-paragraph story that Henson had been shot "during a quarrel between 20 white youths and two black youths." Judge Wendt said he acquitted the defendants because of "the most conflicting testimony I've ever heard."

No transcript of the trial exists. When a defendant is convicted and appeals, transcripts are typed up from the court reporter's notes—but after an acquittal, transcripts are usually typed up only if someone chooses to order and pay for one. According to a supervisor in the court reporter's office, the notes of the trial's two court reporters, one of whom is dead and the other senile, couldn't be located.

Of the acquittals, Jo Ann Henson says, "Now I understand why my grandmother would go off and cry. She was probably feeling like, 'They killed my son, and nobody paid for it.'"

Joe Fehil died last year, at age 59. His oldest brother, Jim Fehil, says that after the acquittals, family members avoided the subject of the shooting. He says Joe worked in a railroad yard and as a high school security guard. He was hefty and "a rough and tough guy—tough enough to take care of himself," his older brother says. He had "a heart of gold," but "people took advantage of him." Jim Fehil adds that he didn't like some of the kids Joe hung out with—especially Schickel, who Jim considered a "moron."

I tell him about Jo Ann Henson, who's still trying to make sense of what happened to her father. "Tell her I'm very sorry," Jim Fehil says. "My heart goes out to her—it's a shame what happened."

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