Convicting the Innocent: Errors of Criminal Justice (1932)
by Edwin M. Borchard
Case #43

Lonzo Thornton


Louie Parkalab was walking down one of the less frequented streets of Middletown, Butler County, Ohio, on October 6, 1926, when he was suddenly confronted by two husky young negroes. They demanded that he turn over his money. Parkalab, a recent arrival in the United States from one of the countries of central Europe, was not entirely familiar with this procedure, and started arguing with the colored men about not having any money. Parkalab's remonstrance was stopped almost at once by a blow from one of the men, which dazed him; and before anyone could hurry to the scene of the assault, Parkalab had been relieved of twenty dollars and an insurance policy, which he was carrying with him for safety. When assistance arrived, Parkalab excitedly directed his rescuers by motions, and in his native language, toward two fleeing figures disappearing into the darkness.

A nearby policeman soon received the alarm and, sighting a running figure in the shadows of some buildings, started in pursuit. After many duckings and turnings, threading in and out of dark alleys and vacant lots, the policeman finally caught a negro, and arrested him. The arrested man said that he "hadn't done nothing," but he was told to tell that to the judge. Louie Parkalab definitely identified the suspect as one of the men who had taken his money, whereupon the suspect was placed in the local jail. It turned out that he was a negro well known in the community as "Ivory," his full name, according to official records, being James Ivory. There was no doubt but that he was one of the assailants. All trace of the other negro was lost, but the police were on the lookout for any suspicious characters.

The following morning the jail tender was greatly surprised when a strange negro appeared at the jail and asked, very meekly, to see Ivory. When asked why he wanted to see him, he said that he was after his overcoat, which Ivory had borrowed. In reply to other questions, he said that he had been in Middletown only a few months, and that he had met Ivory soon after arriving in town. He admitted that he had seen Ivory on the evening before, and that it was then that he had lent his overcoat. When he learned that Ivory was in jail, he came to get the coat back.

The jail attendant told the visitor to wait a few minutes and he would see what could be done for him.

Hurried calls were sent out to the detectives and other officers to come to the jail. When they arrived, new questions were put to this stranger who admitted knowing Ivory. He said that his name was Lonzo Thornton; that, although he was born in Albany, Georgia, he had lived for the past thirteen years in St. Petersburg, Florida; and that he had but recently come to Middletown to be with some of his family. He was questioned closely regarding his whereabouts on the previous evening, and he stated that he had spent most of it with his family at their home at 813 Seventeenth Avenue. When he was accused by detectives of having robbed Louie Parkalab, Thornton was dumbfounded. He denied that he had stolen anything – that he had done anything wrong. He was asked how it was that James Ivory, who had committed the robbery with another, had his overcoat. Somewhat confused, Thornton repeated that he had seen Ivory early in the evening and that, as he himself was going home and Ivory was "stepping out," he had loaned the overcoat to him.

The detectives were unconvinced by this story and decided to hold Thornton for further examination. Louie Parkalab was called and, out of a group of suspects, picked Thornton as the one who had helped Ivory attack him. With that, Thornton's fate was sealed. He was bound over with Ivory for investigation by the Grand Jury. On January 13, 1927, they were indicted, and were brought up for joint trial the following month before Judge Clarence Murphy of the Butler County Circuit Court. John P. Rogers prosecuted the case on behalf of the state, presenting the testimony of Louie Parkalab. It was necessary to have a court interpreter in taking his testimony. The identification of both defendants, which was again made in the court room, was positive. Thornton's attorney, Charles F. Higgins, produced five witnesses (Marion Merchant, Mary Morris, James Ware, Boston Brown, and Sam Emery – all colored) who corroborated the testimony of Thornton that he was at home at the time of the robbery. In view of the reputations of some of these alibi witnesses, notably Boston Brown, Thornton's position with the jury was not helped. The jury required but a little time to return a verdict of guilty against both men. On February 15, 1927, they were sentenced to the Ohio penitentiary on sentences calling for ten to twenty-five-year terms. The next day, they were entered at the penitentiary at Columbus under the wardership of Mr. Thomas.

Like many persons who enter the penitentiary, Thornton sullenly asserted his innocence whenever opportunity presented itself. He was just twenty-three years old, and getting started in life when he was "sent up."


In January, 1928, one Simon Williams, alias Baby Ruth Williams, was arrested on other charges and confessed that he was the one who had helped James Ivory hold up the foreigner in Middletown in October, 1926. Confessions of this kind are always examined very critically by the authorities, for experience has proved that many of them are spurious. Williams' confession, however, was corroborated by collateral evidence on so many points, and the resemblance between Williams and Thornton was so striking, that it convinced the officers. Upon a reexamination of all the evidence, it was concluded that Thornton was really innocent of any connection with the crime. The Ohio Board of Clemency recommended that a pardon be granted to Thornton, and this was done by the Governor of Ohio on February 6, 1928. Williams was charged with the crime and convicted.


Thonton was the victim of unfortunate circumstances. His acquaintance with Ivory, his loan of a coat, the call at the jail at the moment when detectives were looking for Ivory's associate, Parkalab's identification of Thornton, Thornton's resemblance to Williams, the poor character of some of the witnesses who supported Thornton's alibi, the fact that he was tried jointly with Ivory, who was manifestly guilty – these constituted a combination of circumstances too strong to be overcome by the simple truth. The jury preferred to believe Parkalab, upon whose identification alone the prosecution had to rely, rather than the five witnesses who supported Thornton's alibi. But for the confession of Williams, which was so amply fortified as to convince the Ohio police officials and the Board of Clemency of the error committed, Thornton might yet be in the Ohio State Penitentiary at Columbus, assuming that he would have been among those who escaped the fate of the three hundred convicts who were trapped in their cells and burned to death in the fire which destroyed the penitentiary in April, 1930.


1. State of Ohio v. Lonzo Thornton, Case No. 8649, Butler County Court of Common Pleas, Ohio.

2. Acknowledgments: Mr. John P. Rogers, Hamilton, Ohio; Mr. Vivian O. Robertson, Columbus, Ohio.