Law and History Review


“The Killer Behind the Badge”: Race and Police Homicide In New Orleans, 1925–1945

Jeffrey S. Adler c1

At 5:45 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 1943, New Orleans police patrolman John Licali fatally shot 29-year-old Felton Robinson, an unemployed presser. A few minutes earlier, a neighbor had heard a disturbance in the backyard of Robinson's Loyola Street home and had alerted the Twelfth Precinct police station, which dispatched officers Licali and Emile Eskine to investigate. When they arrived, however, they found no signs of disorder. The policemen asked “was there any trouble,” and Robinson answered “no” and invited the officers to come to the back of the small house and “see my wife.” Veola Robinson, who was casually ironing clothes, explained that she and her husband (both of whom were African-American) had argued a short time earlier about purchasing an automobile. Felton Robinson, the woman added, suffered from “spells” and the effects of a “nervous breakdown,” and he had been “cursing and getting boisterous,” prompting the neighbor to summon the police. But the argument had quickly subsided. Licali and Eskine found Robinson to be quiet and peaceful, and the officers, persuaded that the minor domestic quarrel had ended, left the house. As Eskine entered the patrol car, Licali, a few steps behind his partner, turned to Robinson and admonished him “to keep quiet [because] if he talked loud again some of the neighbors might think he is fighting with his wife and call the police again, and they would have to come back again.” Then, according to the officers' report, “without provocation Felton Robinson suddenly attacked Patrolman John Licali,” grabbing the policeman's right arm, dragging him back into the house, hurling him to the floor, and throwing a glass bowl at him. When Robinson “went to the dresser and opened a drawer,” Licali believed that the violent, deranged man was securing a weapon, and the policeman drew his .38 caliber service revolver and fired three shots. In his report, Licali explained that he “was forced to shoot Felton Robinson in defense of his own life.”

(Online publication April 26 2012)



Jeffrey S. Adler is Professor of History and Criminology at the University of Florida <>. For their helpful comments, he would like to thank Leonard Beeghley, Carolyn A. Conley, David R. Johnson, Barbara Mennel, and the reviewers for Law and History Review.