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Lynching victim’s 125-year-old indictment dismissed

Jason Boleman//August 21, 2023

Photo credit: Dan Addison, University of Virginia Communications

Lynching victim’s 125-year-old indictment dismissed

Jason Boleman//August 21, 2023

On July 12, 1898, ice cream vendor John Henry James was met at a train station in Wood’s Crossing just west of Charlottesville by a mob of about 150 people as he was being returned from a jail in Staunton.

The mob lynched James, a Black man, and fired multiple bullets into his body. No one was ever charged for his death.

The lynching is one of at least 86 that occurred in Virginia between 1880 and 1930 according to Encyclopedia Virginia — the majority targeting Black men.

News of James’ death reached the grand jury in Charlottesville, which was in session at the time, to determine whether to bring charges against James for the assault of 20-year-old Julia Hotopp. Hotopp, a white woman, had reported the day before that she had been sexually assaulted by a Black man who matched “somewhat the description” of James, according to newspaper reports at the time.

Despite James’ death, then-Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Micajah Woods and the grand jury decided to return an indictment against James for rape.

The indictment sat in court records for 125 years, until Albemarle County Circuit Judge Cheryl V. Higgins granted a motion filed by Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley to dismiss the indictment against James. The order granting the dismissal was written on July 12 — 125 years to the day of the initial indictment by the grand jury.

“[T]he Court found that the indictment was improperly issued, inasmuch as the historical record establishes that John Henry James was killed before the indictment was returned,” Higgins wrote.

The judge added that “it was not in the interest of justice” for Woods to issue the indictment “given that the historical record was substantially in conflict and was thus inconclusive such that no ethical prosecutor could have reasonably concluded that the admissible evidence would be sufficient” to support the charge.

Higgins noted the indictment “was used corruptly to support the racial terror lynching of John Henry James.”

Hingeley told Virginia Lawyers Weekly that an April visit to The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama with other prosecutors inspired the efforts to dismiss James’ indictment.

“I came away from the experience — a very moving experience — feeling that we needed to do more in our community to address this racial terror lynching in our past,” Hingeley said.

“I felt like the legal system was complicit in the lynching of John Henry James, because the legal system, through issuing an indictment in these irregular circumstances, was in a way attempting to justify the extrajudicial killing.”

— James Hingeley, Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney

Hingeley’s motion to strike James’ indictment was filed in May, stating in part that “[t]he Commonwealth believes this was a false accusation” and “this Court can and should purge the record that unjustly gives official credence to the charge against John Henry James.”

Included as an exhibit in the motion was a copy of the original indictment signed by Woods in 1898.

“From my way of looking at this, I felt like the legal system was complicit in the lynching of John Henry James, because the legal system, through issuing an indictment in these irregular circumstances, was in a way attempting to justify the extrajudicial killing of John Henry James,” Hingeley said.

Hingeley was aided in his efforts by Jalane Schmidt, who serves as the director of the Memory Project at the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy and is an associate professor of religious studies at UVa. Schmidt helped provide historical perspective of the time and testified during the July 12 hearing on the context of “Virginia post-Reconstruction, civic life and politics in Virginia and what was going on.”

“I was really glad when Jim brought this up, filed this motion with the court and asked me to participate in it,” she said.

Schmidt told Virginia Lawyers Weekly that the remembrance of James’ lynching began years earlier following the recommendations of Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces.

“One of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission was to do a public remembrance project with the Equal Justice Initiative about this lynching,” Schmidt said. She added that a ceremony at the lynching site was held in 2018, after which a delegation gave soil from the site to the Legacy Museum in Alabama.

One year later, a historical marker was placed on the anniversary of the lynching on the courthouse lawn, a location chosen to make the plaque more accessible to the public.

“We thought, ‘Let’s put this plaque on the courthouse lawn, because this was where he was supposed to come for this adjudication,’ not that he would have received a fair trial anyways,” Schmidt said. “This lynching was an abrogation of the rule of law in Albemarle County, so it’s important to have this reminder on the courthouse lawn.”

But James’ indictment remained on the record, which Schmidt described as “a moment” marking a key point in Virginia’s post-Civil War history.

“This lynching in 1898 is a moment that illustrates the turning point going on in Virginia away from Reconstruction rule — a movement at the end of that Reconstruction state constitution and going into the ‘Jim Crow’ era constitution just several years later,” she said.

The July 12 hearing took less than an hour and was held before a filled-to-capacity courtroom and auxiliary courtroom, which had a livestreamed video feed. Many local leaders were in attendance, including prosecutors, judges and elected officials.

Hingeley said pursuing this dismissal was especially important to him as he holds the same office that Woods, the longtime Albemarle County prosecutor who went on to become president of the Virginia Bar Association, held in 1898.

“He was my predecessor in office,” Hingeley said. “As a member of the community, I feel that his conduct needs to be addressed, but I feel a special connection to that conduct because he held the same office then that I hold now.”

Schmidt said it is believed that this is the only case so far where a jurisdiction has gone back to dismiss an indictment that was issued in a manner that James’ was, which could spark similar actions in the future.

“I think there’s a lot of reckoning that has to be done by the legal profession, not just here in Virginia and not just in the South, about how the legal system was part and parcel of the infrastructure of white supremacy,” Schmidt said.

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