The image of a suspect being questioned under a bright, hot light is the stuff of film noir movies like Laura where the protagonist was questioned under the steady beam of bright lights in the interrogation room, screwball comedies like His Girl Friday, and even a Seinfeld episode.
But interrogation under blinding hot lights was not just a cinematic metaphor that became a joke, the Wickersham Commission reported that police in Memphis, Tennessee interrogated a reporter under bright lights in 1931 (Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, p. 256). The practice seems to have been used in Chicago, as well, where Robert Nixon was not the only suspect in the years before World War II to claim he was interrogated under hot lights. Frank Kolesiak, suspected in an arson case, said he was interrogated under hot lights by a Fire Marshall in 1938 (Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1938). Two years later, Carl Ericsson said that the police officers at the East Chicago station shackled him to a chair and questioned him under bright, hot lights (Chicago Tribune, February 12, 1940).
In 1938, Robert Nixon was arrested in Chicago for the murder of Florence Johnson, the white wife of a Chicago firefighter. Nixon, who was black, was ultimately convicted of Johnson’s murder, chiefly on the basis of his own confession.
At trial, and then on appeal, Nixon and his attorneys claimed that Nixon had been tortured into confessing. Nixon claimed that detectives at police headquarters at 11th and State had beaten him while he hung by his cuffed wrists, threatened to drop him from a open window, and questioned him in a fifth floor room under very hot lights.
Continue reading Bright lights, big lies
Many of the people who claimed they were tortured by police between 1871 and 1971 were unable to convince jurors or judges at their trials of the truth of their claims. Once convicted, most could not afford to bring an appeal, and few of those who could appeal were able to convince the appellate judges to reverse their convictions. But every so often, a person who claimed to have been tortured into confessing to a crime in Chicago did win.
In September 1946, Leslie Wakat was arrested by Chicago police officers at the Town Hall police station on suspicion of being involved in an arson and burglary at the Lakeview Tool and Die Company in Chicago.
At trial, Wakat and his attorneys tried to keep his confession out of evidence on the ground that he had been tortured into confessing. In his testimony, Wakat described abuse that went on for several hours: He said he was taken to the scene of the time by several officers, and while there had his handcuffed arms twisted behind his back by Officer Harlib and hit in the face several times. Once back at the Town Hall station, he was beaten for half an hour by several officers using a blackjack, a sandbag, and a stick. Then, after a brief period in several other offices in the station, he was taken back to the first room, and beaten until he lost consciousness. He claimed that officers revived him with whisky and, while he was intoxicated, had him sign a statement. At trial, the officers (and attorneys) present during Wakat’s interrogations denied that anyone beat him. One officer, Suckow, testified at trial that Wakat fell down the stairs; another officer, Harlib, testified that he and Wakat both fell down a flight of stairs as a result of a scuffle at the station. At trial, the jury did not believe Wakat; he was convicted and sentenced to 10-20 years in prison.
Though it took more than a decade, Wakat ultimately managed to convince four different courts to listen to and accept his claims.
- Several years after his conviction, Wakat filled a post conviction petition before Judge Graber of the Cook County courts. In his petition, Wakat asked to have his conviction overturned because his constitutional rights were violated when the police coerced his confession and because police offered perjured testimony at his trial. After a hearing, Judge Graber ruled for Wakat and ordered the state to give him a new trial.
- That decision was affirmed on appeal by the Illinois Supreme Court, Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610 (1953), in an opinion written by Justice Walter V. Schaefer. Justice Schaefer noted that “there is neither doubt nor denial that [Wakat] sustained serious injuries while in police custody after his arrest.” (p. XX). Schaefer pointed to the testimony of a county jail physician, who saw Wakat on September 27, three days after his arrest, and described Wakat as having bruises, a broken hand, and injuries to his leg and knee. Wakat had to be hospitalized for more than ten days for those injuries.
- After the state decided not to retry Wakat, he sued and won damages against the arresting officers in a federal civil rights case.
- That verdict was affirmed on appeal by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Wakat v. Harlib, 253 F. 2d 59 (7th Cir. 1958).
A year later, the ACLU of Illinois published a booklet called Secret Detention by the Chicago Police (1959). Wakat’s mistreatment at the hands of the Chicago police was one of the subjects of that study.