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.

42nd_precinct_police_station_8
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).

 

Published by

erdale13

Professor, History and Law, University of Florida

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