Bagging

In June 1961, detectives from Chicago’s Area 1 robbery headquarters celebrated their arrest of six young black men suspected in a series of robberies across Chicago and the city’s south suburbs. The arrests were particularly satisfying because an employee at a bowling alley they had robbed had been shot to death during one of their hold ups. Photos of suspects, McKinley Jones, Lyvon (or Layvon) Draper, Bert Wells, Louis Bean, Richard Pittman, and Charles Stevenson, were splashed across the Chicago Defender to record the capture of the “six-man terror gang” (Chicago Defender, June 8, 1961, p. 2). And two of the detectives involved in cracking the case, Howard Seaberry and Lucio Works, were singled out for praise by Howard Pierson, who commanded the robbery detail at the Prairie Avenue station (Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1961, p.9).

The case seemed cut and dried. During questioning, three of the men, Jones, Draper, and Stevenson, confessed to participating in the robbery at the bowling alley, though none admitted to firing the fatal shot. Although the others recanted their confessions, Draper stood by his. In addition, several witnesses to the various holdups identified several of the men in lineups (Chicago Defender, June 5, 1961, p. 7; Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1961, p. 9).

But just over six months later, a jury found Draper and Stevenson not guilty of murder. Both presented alibi witnesses. In addition, Lyvon Draper testified that he had only confessed after being given the third degree. He told the jury that he had been taken to the basement of the station, where officers put a bag over his head and beat him. In addition, he said that officers held his head under water twice as they pressured him to confess. When he did agree to confess, he said the officers interrogating him told him what to write (Chicago Defender, February 7, 1962, p. 7).

Fillmore station

On February 27, 1956, Isaac Berger, a white grocer, was killed during a robbery at his store. A witness said that three young black men tried to rob the store, and that Berger was killed when he tried to resist. A few weeks later, officers at the Fillmore police station on Chicago’s west side reported that they were charging two young black men, De Soto Allen, a seventeen-year-old high school student, and Robert Jackson, who was twenty-three, for the murder (Chicago Tribune, March 16, 1956, p. 2).

The two were indicted, along with a third man, Donald Wilson, who was charged with renting Jackson the gun used in the crime. At trial, Allen and Jackson denied that they were involved in Berger’s murder. The prosecution claimed that Allen and Jackson had jointly confessed to the crime. Although Jackson’s attorney objected to the introduction of the confession, the trial judge, Daniel Roberts, admitted it into evidence. At the close of trial, Judge Roberts, who was hearing the case without a jury, found Allen and Jackson guilty and sentenced them to 30 years in prison (Chicago Tribune, March 20, 1956, p. A4; Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1956, p. A6). He found Wilson not guilty.

On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that considering the confession without first having a hearing on whether it was voluntary violated Jackson’s rights. The court sent the case back down for a hearing on whether Jackson’s confession was voluntary (Illinois v. Jackson, 31 Ill.2d 408 (1964)).

At that hearing, Jackson testified that several officers at the Fillmore station questioned him about the gun that was used during the murder. He said that during the interrogation he was taken down to the basement of the station, where a bag was placed over his head. He also claimed he was hit on the head, behind one ear, and beaten in the stomach by several of the officers. He also claimed that his request to make a phone call was ignored. His sisters testified that when they went to the station a few hours after Jackson’s arrest, they were told he was not there. His mother testified that when she tried to see her son she was not allowed to do so.

The officers denied that they hit or otherwise harmed Jackson. The prosecution also presented evidence that Jackson had not complained to anyone about any abuse before the trial. At the end of the hearing, the judge ruled that the confession had not been coerced. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court deferred to the trial judge’s determination that the confessions were not coerced and affirmed Jackson’s conviction (Illinois v. Jackson, 41 Ill. 2d 102 (1968)).

Not long after Allen and Jackson’s trial in 1956,  Donald Wilson filed suit against officers at the Filmore station. Wilson, a former security guard, claimed that while he was in custody at the Fillmore station he was beaten so severely by several officers that he was permanently disabled (Chicago Defender (daily edition), June 28, 1956, p. 2;  Chicago Tribune, March 20, 1956, p. A4; Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1956, p. A6).

In 1958, a federal grand jury began to investigate claims that officers at the Fillmore street station abused black youth in custody. One witness, Edward Byrd, told the grand jury that while he was questioned at the Fillmore station the officer interrogating him typed up a confession and told him to sign it. When he refused, since he had not confessed to anything, Byrd said the officer began to beat him (Chicago Defender, April 12, 1958, p. 3).

Two months later, the grand jury indicted two officers from the Fillmore station, Ernest Charles and Nathaniel Crossley. The two were charged with beating and whipping eighteen-year-old James Halsell in 1957 (Chicago Defender, June 12, 1958, p. 1). This was not the first time someone claimed to have been beaten by Charles and Crossley. In 1957, two black teens, Ermon Bryant and James Hill claimed the officers beat them to get them to confess to robbing a gas station (Chicago Defender, October 17, 1957, p. 4). In addition, Charles was one of the officers that Donald Wilson and Robert Jackson charged had beaten them at the Fillmore station in 1956. (Chicago Defender, November 27, 1956, p. A6; Illinois v. Jackson, 41 Ill. 2d 102).

Crossley went to trial in federal court in 1960 (Charles had died before the case went to trial). At trial, Halsell, Bryant, and others testified that they had been beaten at the Fillmore station.  The defense called fifteen people, mostly police officers, who testified that they never saw or heard any abuse at the station. After deliberating for ten hours, a jury of six men and six women found Crossley not guilty (Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1960, p. 20; Chicago Tribune, November 2, 1960, p. B2).

 

 

The Goldfish Room

Chicago police arrested Edmund Fitch, a composer who supported himself playing the organ at Chicago’s Stratford Theater, in January 1923 and charged him with car theft. Fitch quickly confessed, claiming (much to the amusement of local papers) that the thefts had been prompted by his love of beautiful women (Chicago Tribune, January 29, 1923, p. 10).

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Stratford Theater from cinematreasures.org

The amusement quickly ended. A day later Fitch appeared in front of the Chicago City Council, and told the alderman that he “confessed” only after police officers at the detective bureau beat him with a rubber hose. Fitch took off his shirt in the council chamber, revealing bruises and abrasions on his left side,  contusions on his face, and a left hand so swollen that he was unable to work (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1923, p. 7).

A representative from the police department auto unit tried to convince the alderman that Fitch had been injured before his arrest, and told the arresting officer that he had fallen off a park bench. Alderman were skeptical, and outraged. At the end of the hearing, the chief of police promised to let Fitch try to identify the officers who beat him. The Chicago Tribune quoted the chief as telling the city council that he was “not in favor of beating prisoners” and that he would do his “best to stop it” (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1923, p. 7).

The next day, Fitch viewed a photo array and identified William Cox, a detective sergeant, as the man who beat him. Fitch also picked out several other officers who watched the beating. Fitch also described being told he was being taken to what the detectives called “the gold fish room” for his beating (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1923, 1). Cox and several other officers were quickly indicted and the city council unanimously passed a resolution directing the chief of police suspend

any officer or officers who may be indicted for cruelty to any prisoner or prisoners

before they were tried. The resolution also demanded that the police department engage in a complete investigation into charges of police cruelty (Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1923, p. 3).

The police department promptly suspended Cox and the other two officers that Fitch had identified. The three were released on bond (Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1923, p.3; Chicago Tribune, February 4, 1923, p. 14). But outrage about the incident quickly was overwhelmed by political bickering at the city council (Chicago Tribune, February 8, 1923, 2). By November 1923, Cox was back on the job and involved in the investigation into the murder of Edward Lehman during a robbery (Chicago Tribune, November 24, 1923, 1).

Partial Vindication

In the fall of 1946, just a few months after the protest over the arrest and mistreatment of Hector Verburgh and Desore Smet, Chicago police arrested Leslie Wakat, twice.

The first time he was taken into custody, Wakat was arrested for “investigation” and held three days until a lawyer filed a petition for habeas corpus on his behalf. After a hearing, a judge ordered that Wakat be released. A few hours later, Wakat was arrested a second time, once again for investigation. After his second arrest, Wakat was taken to Chicago’s Town Hall police station in the Lake View neighborhood.

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Town Hall police station, Chicago (wikimedia.org)

During his second time in custody, the police kept Wakat from his lawyer.  On September 27, three days after he was taken into custody the second time, Wakat confessed to several burglaries. He was tried before a jury, convicted, and sentenced to 10-20 years for burglary based on his confession (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610 (1953)).

At trial, Wakat presented evidence that his confession was the result of sustained torture by officers at the Town Hall Station. He testified that after his rearrest he was taken to the scene of his supposed crimes where an officer named Peter Harlib twisted his handcuffed arm behind his back and struck him in the face. According to Wakat, when they returned to the Town Hall Station he was taken to the station gymnasium where several officers beat him with a stick, a sandbag, and blackjacks. After spending some time being interrogated in different offices in the building, Wakat was taken back to the gymnasium and beaten again. Wakat claimed that he lost consciousness during the second beating; the next morning he was shown confessions he was told he had signed the night before, although he had no recollection of doing so (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610, 612-613).

There was no question that Wakat was injured, severely, while he was in police custody. A doctor at the Cook County jail examined him when he was taken to the jail after being charged. That doctor recorded that Wakat had multiple bruises, a fracture of a bone in his right hand, and injuries to his left leg and knee. Wakat was hospitalized eleven days for his injuries (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610, 612). At trial, the police officers who testified all swore that no one had injured Wakat. Harlib explained that Wakat’s injuries arose when they both fell down the stairs at the station during a tussle after Wakat reached for Harlib’s gun (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610, 614).

At trial, the jurors apparently believed the police officers. But more than five years after his original trial, Wakat had his conviction overturned in a post-conviction hearing. At the hearing, Wakat presented evidence that raised questions about whether falling down the stairs would have caused his injuries. He also put on evidence that contradicted Harlib’s claims that he had been injured as well (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610, 614).The judge hearing the evidence concluded that Harlib’s claims were not believable and that Wakat’s confession had been obtained through torture. That decision was affirmed on appeal by the Illinois Supreme Court (Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610 (1953)).

Illinois decided not to retry him. Wakat then filed a civil rights claim against the officers in federal court, asserting that because

he had a criminal record he was arrested without a warrant and detained for 6 days without being charged with a crime; thus he was barred from the right to give bail. He was denied the privilege of seeing his attorney. His property and tools were taken from him without legal process. He was coerced by the application of brutal force to sign a confession which was later used in court to convict him, thus compelling him to give evidence against himself in a criminal case.

Wakat v. Harlib, 253 F.2d 59, 64 (7th Circ. 1958).

Wakat was awarded $15,000 (Wakat v. Harlib, 253 F.2d 59 (7th Cir. 1958)). A year later, the ACLU of Chicago discussed Wakat’s case in its report, Secret Detention by the Chicago Police (1959). The report also noted, pointedly, that “no disciplinary action has ever been taken against Harlib by his superiors” (p. 17).

 

Civil liberties and the third degree

The charge that the Chicago police hanged suspects from their wrists during interrogations was repeated during the investigation into the Suzanne Degnan murder, in 1946. Degnan, a six-year-old, went missing from her bedroom on Chicago’s north side in January 1946. The kidnapping case became a murder investigation when parts of her body were discovered in sewer pipes near her family’s home.

Chicago police detectives arrested a number of suspects. One, sixty-five-year-old Hector Verburgh, was the janitor in the Degnan’s building. Another, thirty-five-year-old Desore Smet, was the janitor for a building nearby. Verburgh’s wife was also taken into custody (New York Times, January 9, 1946, p. 1; New York Times, January 10, 1946, p. 42). The Verburghs and Smet were released without charging two days after their arrest, though Smet was arrested and then released a second time a few days (Chicago Tribune, January 17, 1946, p. 1).

On January 24, the Chicago Civil Liberties committee organized a community meeting to protest Verburgh and Smet’s treatment at the hands of the police. The 400 people who attended the event called on the police chief and the mayor to train police officers about the civil rights of suspects and dismiss those officers who used the third degree. The meeting also asked the FBI to investigate Verburgh and Smet’s claims they were subject to the third degree while being interrogated (Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1946, p. 5).

The Verburghs then sued. In their complaint, Hector Verburgh claimed that while he was in custody the police handcuffed his hands behind his back and then

by a rope or other device attached to the handcuffs behind his back, raised his body from the floor until his weight rested on his toes and shoulder sockets, causing intense pain and torture.

(Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1946, p. 4).

The Verburghs’ suit asked for $125,000; they settled their case for $20,000 (Chicago Tribune February 21, 1946, p.1). Smet, who had filed his own suit for $50,000 in damages, was paid just over $5000 in the settlement (Chicago Tribune August 17, 1946, p. 7).

 

Toughest cop in America

In 2001, Charles Adamson, who had been a cop in Chicago, published a biography of Frank Pape called The Toughest Cop in America. Pape had been Adamson’s mentor on the force, and the biography offered a very positive view of Pape’s sometimes controversial career.

In the book, Adamson offered accounts of many of the cases that were solved by Pape and his colleagues on Chicago’s robbery squad. One such tale involved Edward Damiani, who was arrested with Alvin Krause and charged with killing a currency exchange employee during a robbery in 1943. Damiani was put through a twelve hour interrogation by the detectives before he confessed. Adamson quoted one of the detectives involved in the interrogation as telling another detective that “you wouldn’t want to go through what that punk did, no way” (Adamson p. 20).

At Damiani’s trial, Pape testified about Damiani’s confession. It was admitted into evidence over the objection of Damiani’s attorney, who argued the confession should be excluded because Damiani had been subjected to the third degree to coerce him into confessing (Chicago Tribune, February 6, 1944, p. 16).

Then Damiani took the stand to elaborate on what that meant. Most notably, he claimed that during the twelve hour interrogation he was hanged by his cuffed wrists from a door. During his testimony, Damiani also admitted under oath that he released the gas that asphyxiated the currency exchange worker, killing her (Chicago Tribune, February 9, 1944, p.1).

Damiani’s admission proved more important than his claim of torture. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison (Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1944, p.1).

Suspended from a door

Arthur LaFrana was arrested on December 30, 1937. Over the next several days, he was questioned about a number of robberies and confessed to two, one involving a bakery and another involving a liquor store. On December 31, the police began to interrogate him about another robbery, of a movie theater, where a cashier was murdered in the course of the crime. LaFrana denied that he was involved in the movie theater robbery for several days. Finally, on January 3, LaFrana admitted that he had robbed the theater and killed the cashier in the process and signed a confession to that effect.

When he was tried on the murder charge, LaFrana tried to prevent his confession from being admitted into evidence. He claimed that he had only confessed after being subject to an extensive third degree. He testified that on January 3 he was told that two other men had confessed and implicated him in the crime. When he continued to deny that he was involved, the captain who was interrogating him

hit him repeatedly with his fists and with a night stick. His hands were then handcuffed behind him and he was blindfolded. A rope was put in between the handcuffs and he was suspended from a door with his hands behind him and his feet almost off the floor. While he was hanging from the door, he was repeatedly struck until he lapsed into unconsciousness. When he lost consciousness he was taken down from the door and when he regained consciousness he would be hung back up on the door and again questioned and struck. After about fifteen minutes of this treatment he agreed to sign a confession.

Illinois v. LaFrana, 4 Ill. 2d 261, 265 (1954)

LaFrana also presented evidence that when he was booked at Cook County Jail on January 11, 1938, the county physician noted on his intake form that LaFrana had a black eye and abrasions on both his wrists. LaFrana also put into evidence a newspaper photo that showed he had several cuts on his face and a black eye. 4 Ill. 2d at 267-268.

The captain who obtained LaFrana’s confession took the stand and told a very different story. He claimed that LaFrana tried to escape and had to be subdued as a result. But he denied that LaFrana had been subject to any other harm at the station, and two other officers who testified agreed that they never saw LaFrana beaten. 4 Ill. 2d at 266. The trial judge, Thomas Kluczynski, denied the motion to suppress the confession and admitted it into evidence. LaFrana was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

After a lengthy series of appeals, his case reached the Illinois Supreme Court. In November 1954, that court reversed LaFrana’s conviction for murder on the ground that the evidence presented by the prosecution at his trial did not disprove LaFrana’s claim that his confession had been coerced.