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).

 

Published by

erdale13

Professor, History and Law, University of Florida

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