To my colleague, Ibram Kendi, whose book, Stamped from the Beginning, just won the National Book Award for non-fiction. The book is one readers of this blog should be aware of.
November 17, 1959, 90 year-old Gertrude Rheinhardt, often described in news accounts as a former opera singer, and her 71 year-old nephew, John Schot, were mysteriously murdered. The two lived in separate apartments in a building Rheinhardt owned at 1927 Jackson Boulevard, Chicago. Very early in the morning of November 17, another resident in the building was awakened by the sound of what seemed to be a scream. When she went out of her apartment to investigate, she saw someone she later described as a tall, slim, light-skinned black man wearing a bright red shirt. Believing him to be the handyman who worked at the building, she asked him if anything was wrong. When he told her no, she went back to bed, only to be reawakened a short time later by the smell of smoke (Chicago Tribune, November 18, 1959, p. B12).
Although the building was soon ablaze, most of the tenants escaped. But when firefighters went through the apartments they found both Rheinhardt and Schot, along with Rheinhardt’s two dogs. They were all dead. Both Rheinhardt and Scott had been stabbed to death (Chicago Tribune, November 18, 1959, p. B12).
Detectives at the Warren Avenue station were assigned to investigate the double homicide. Notwithstanding the fact they had an eyewitness in the form of the tenant who spoke to the supposed handyman, they had little success the first week of their investigation. Adding to the confusion, their witness gave several statements which were subsequently discarded by the investigating officers. Then, during one of her visits to the Warren Avenue station, the neighbor saw a black man in custody in the station. She quickly identified him as the man she saw in her apartment building the night of the fire (Illinois v. Scott, 29 Ill. 2d 97 (1963)).
Once again, there was some confusion about the neighbor’s evidence. She testified at trial that she was able to identify the man in custody at the station because he was wearing the red shirt she saw the night of the murder, but other witnesses testified that the man she identified, Roosevelt Scott, was not wearing a red shirt at the station. In the end, it did not matter because Scott confessed to the murder (Illinois v. Scott, 29 Ill. 2d 97 (1963)).
At a preliminary hearing, Scott’s attorney argued that the confession should be suppressed. Scott testified that while he was being interrogated at the Warren Avenue station he was handcuffed in a way that caused him serious pain, struck with a blackjack, hit on the top of the head with a Chicago phone book, and forced to remove his clothes and lie on the floor with his legs spread, while officers hit his genitals with a belt (Illinois v. Scott, 29 Ill. 2d 97, 102-103).
Neither the trial judge, nor the Illinois Supreme Court believed Scott’s claims of torture. After a trial, Scott was found guilty of both murders and sentenced to death for each. Although the Illinois Supreme Court did not believe Scott’s claims about being tortured by the police, and refused to bar his confession from evidence, it did reverse his conviction and order that he be retried. At his second trial in 1964, Scott represented himself. Once again, his confession was introduced into evidence, and once again he was convicted of Gertrude Rheinhardt’s murder. This time, he was sentenced to 100-150 years in prison for her murder (Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1964, 3). It is not clear whether he was ever retried for the murder of John Schot.
In late fall 1918, Judge Henry Guerin, recently elected to the bench, wrote to the Marcus Kavanagh, chief judge of the Cook County criminal courts. Guerin asked Kavanagh to order an investigation into the use of the third degree.
In his letter, Guerin complained that several defendants who had appeared in his court had testified that they were subject to “brutal treatment” by Chicago police officers and people at the state’s attorney’s office. He noted that jurors believed these claims and acquitted the suspects as a result. Guerin warned that soon it would be impossible to convict anyone in Cook County. A spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office denied that anyone there used the third degree, but welcomed an investigation into the practice. (Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1918, p. 17).
Five months later, Judge Guerin once again spoke out on the third degree after hearing testimony by Joseph Radakowitz, on trial for the murder of Fred Papke. Radakowitz testified that after he was arrested police officers threatened to knock his brains out, to whip him, to hit him with clubs to try to get him to confess. Radakowitz also claimed that when he was questioned at the state’s attorney’s office, he was told he would be beaten up if he did not answer questions (Chicago Tribune, April 12, 1919, p.17).
Guerin refused to admit the confession into evidence. After the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, Guerin made a speech deploring Radakowitz’s claims that he had been threatened by the police and employees of the state’s attorney’s office. Such a proceeding, Guerin said,
is absolutely in violation of the law. It is a violation permitted by the police department and the state’s attorney’s office; by the men to whom we look to protect the law and to protect the citizens of this country. It is a matter that requires investigation by the grand jury (Chicago Tribune, April 12, 1919, p. 17)
The state’s attorney’s office was quick to denounce Judge Guerin, complaining that the
practice of censuring the state’s attorney and the police department before juries not only weakens the morale and intimidates these officials but tends to bring the law which the state’s attorney and the police are trying to enforce in disrepute and contempt, not only in the minds of the criminals, but in the hearts of the juries (Chicago Tribune, April 12, 1919, p. 17).
The grand jury did hear evidence about use of the third degree in a session in April 1919 (Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1919, p. 10; Chicago Tribune, April 27, 1919, 13). In May 1919, the jury issued a report on that investigation. It found “no evidence that third degree methods were used by Assistant State’s Attorney John Owen in the confession of Joseph Radakawitz (sic); rather that Mr. Owen deserves commendation for his manner of handling that case”(Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1919, p. 1).
Judge Guerin did not pursue the issue of the third degree any further. He died in a boating accident in September 1919 (Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1919, p. 1).
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).
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).
Alex Gordon‘s claim that the Chicago police officers who interrogated him hanged him by his wrists during their interrogation echoed charges made by other men in other decades. In 1928, Kenneth Cope claimed that he was subject to a range of mistreatment while he was interrogated about a robbery by officers at the Gresham police station. According to Cope, over the course of several hours police officers, including chief of detectives Michael Grady, hit and kicked him in the shins, and hit him on the back and stomach with their fists and blackjacks. Cope claimed that at one point in his interrogation he was taken to the station gymnasium, where they put cuffs around his ankles and then suspended him from some bars in the gym for about five minutes, while one of the officers hit him. Ultimately, Cope confessed to the crime.
At trial, Cope tried to keep the jury from hearing his confession, arguing that he falsely confessed as a result of the torture. The trial judge, William Gemmill, denied the motion and allowed the confession into evidence. Cope then took the stand to tell the jury about his abuse at the hands of the police. Some, but not all of the police officers who interrogated Cope testified and denied that they had hit or harmed him in any way. The jury found Cope guilty.
The Supreme Court of Illinois reversed. Writing regarding Cope’s claim that he was tortured into confessing, that court wrote
The defendant’s statement that he was shackled and strung up by the heels and was beaten by the chief of detectives of the city of Chicago and the desk sergeant at the police station to force a confession from him was competent evidence, and current history indicates that it was not manifestly incredible. (Illinois v. Cope, 345 Ill. 278, 285 (1931).