Pincham, R. Eugene Sr.

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R. Eugene Pincham Sr.


Lawyer, judge

R. Eugene Pincham Sr. died in 2008 after a long career as a noted attorney, judge, and civil rights activist in Chicago. Known for his incisive grasp of the law, Pincham was "an unabashed champion of unpopular causes," asserted Trevor Jensen and Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune, and a figure whose "legal savvy and stirring oratory made him a legend of the Cook County courthouse, and put him at the forefront of a generation of black attorneys who jousted fearlessly with entrenched power."

Pincham was born in Chicago in 1925, but he spent his childhood in Limestone County, Alabama, after his mother moved there when she was divorced from his father. Fortunately for Pincham, his hometown of Athens was near the Trinity School, which was founded in 1866 by an abolitionist group to educate recently freed slaves and their children. He graduated from Trinity's high school in 1941, moved to Chicago to find work, and then enrolled at LeMoyne College in 1942. Expelled from the Memphis school because of a combination of poor grades and conduct, Pincham would later characterize this incident as a turning point in his life, and he proved a much more serious student when he entered Tennessee State University in Nashville. After graduating with an undergraduate degree in political science in 1947, he applied to and won admission to Northwestern University's law school. It was an era when few African Americans were able to achieve a graduate school education at predominantly white schools, and Pincham later recalled that one of his Northwestern law school professors, who taught him on three separate occasions, refused to call on him during those three semesters.

Pincham graduated with his law degree in 1951 and was admitted to the state bar of Illinois that same year. For the next four years he was an associate attorney in private practice, but in 1955 he formed a partnership with Charles B. Evins. Their firm achieved a reputation for success in criminal and civil cases, and Pincham was known as an especially adept trial lawyer and formidable appellate attorney. In 1976 he began a new phase of his career on the other side of the courtroom when he was appointed as a judge on the bench of the Circuit Court of Cook County, the largest single-unit court system in the United States. In 1984 he became an appellate court judge for the state of Illinois. He retired in 1989 to begin a potential third phase of his career—as an elected official—but he also returned to private practice as an attorney.

In the early 1980s Pincham was an ardent supporter of Harold Washington, who became Chicago's first African-American mayor in 1983. Washington died in office four years later, and his untimely death caused the city's black power base to split, with two younger politicians vying to succeed the late mayor—both at city hall and as the unifying force among Chicago's African-American community. Pincham lost a 1989 Democratic primary race for Cook County Board president, and in 1990 he ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner on the Harold Washington ticket. As a third-party candidate in 1991, he challenged Richard M. Daley, the incumbent Chicago mayor, and took 22 percent of the vote—far more than the 4 percent won by the Republican challenger, but much less than the 73 percent taken by Daley. In 1996 Pincham ran for Cook County state's attorney, but he lost that race as well.

Two years later Pincham's name appeared on several occasions in the national news media in connection with a notorious murder case that had shaken Chicago's South Side. Two young boys, aged seven and eight, were falsely accused of killing an eleven-year-old girl in their Englewood neighborhood in July of 1998. Pincham was retained by the eight-year-old's family as a criminal defense attorney, and he raised several questions about the supposed confession that police had coerced from both youngsters. A few weeks later, police and prosecutors admitted that they had erred, with incontrovertible new evidence showing that Ryan Harris, the little girl, had been assaulted by a convicted sex offender. Pincham then represented the boys in a suit against the Chicago Police Department and Cook County prosecutors for wrongful arrest and won an $8 million judgment for them. He later described the case as "an embarrassing, unwarranted, and diabolical rush to judgment," he told David J. Krajicek in the book Scooped!: Media Miss Real Story on Crime While Chasing Sex, Sleaze, and Celebrities. "It exploited the public's anxieties about juvenile violence, and it reinforced this demonization of our children in black communities, this belief that they can and will do anything."

Pincham taught a new generation of future attorneys and judges at several different institutions, among them his alma mater, Northwestern, and the law schools of Notre Dame, the University of Illinois, and the University of Houston. In January of 2006 he was invited to speak at Indiana's Valparaiso University School of Law in connection with events honoring the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. that week. "You're here for a purpose," he told the audience that day, according to a report in the Post-Tribune of Gary, Indiana. "The purpose for which we're put on this earth is to make it a better place."

At a Glance …

Born Robert Eugene Pincham on June 28, 1925, in Chicago, IL; died from cancer on April 3, 2008, in Chicago; married Alzata Cudalia Henry, August 1948 (died, 2005); children: Robert Eugene Jr., James, and Andrea Pincham-Benton. Education: Tennessee State University, BS, 1947; Northwestern University School of Law, JD, 1951.

Career: Firm of Joseph E. Clayton Jr., associate attorney, 1951-55; founded law partnership with Charles B. Evins, 1955; in private practice until 1976, and after 1990; Circuit Court of Cook County, judge, 1976-84; Illinois appellate court, judge, 1984-89; lecturer and instructor at Notre Dame University School of Law, Northwestern University School of Law, University of Illinois School of Law, and University of Houston's Bates College of Law.

Memberships: American Bar Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Chicago Bar Association, Cook County Bar Association, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (life member), National Bar Association.

Awards: Richard E. Westbrook Award, Cook County Bar Association; Award of Merit, Northwestern University Alumni Association, 1975.

One of Pincham's last cases came when he joined the legal team defending the rhythm and blues singer R. Kelly on charges that he consorted with a minor. Cancer ended Pincham's life on April 3, 2008, three years after the death of his wife Alzata Cudalia Henry, whom he had married in 1948. The couple raised three children at a home on Michigan Avenue and Ninety-third Street in the West Chesterfield neighborhood. He was a familiar figure to several generations of children there, one of whom was John Hardwick. The forty-year-old Hardwick told Wendell Hutson of the Chicago Defender that "on more than one occasion when he heard us cursing, he called us over to his front door to tell us how we need to respect ourselves and not curse. I can still hear him saying, ‘you not only make yourself and your parents look bad when cursing, but you make all us Black folks look bad too.’"



Krajicek, David J., Scooped!: Media Miss Real Story on Crime While Chasing Sex, Sleaze, and Celebrities, Columbia University Press, 1998.


Chicago Tribune, April 4, 2008.

Jet, April 21, 2008, p. 51.

New York Times, March 18, 1990, p. 15; October 26, 1990; May 30, 1991.

Post-Tribune (Gary, IN), January 18, 2006, p. A3.


Hutson, Wendell, "The Black Community Remembers Pincham," Chicago Defender, (accessed June 13, 2008.)

"Wiley A. Branton Award Recipients," National Bar Association, (accessed June 13, 2008).

—Carol Brennan

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Pincham, R. Eugene Sr.

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