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.

“Shackled and strung up by the heels…”

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).

More on the water cure

Another claim involving the water cure arose in 1962. Alex Gordon, along with several other Black men, was arrested in Chicago and accused of kidnapping. Before trial, his attorney, James Montgomery, claimed that the officers in the detective division who interrogated Gordon tortured him in an effort to make him confess. Speaking for his client, Montgomery charged the police pointed a gun at him during interrogation, hung him from his wrists until his skin peeled, and held his head under water for long periods (Chicago Defender, March 3, 1962, p. 2; Chicago Defender, May 9, 1962, p. 5). Four men were indicted for the crime; three pled guilty and the fourth was found guilty of robbery. Gordon was not among them (Chicago Tribune, October 30, 1962, p. 4).

Water cure, 1966

In the early evening of January 1, 1966, Chicago police officers arrested Fred Alexander and another man. The two, both of whom were Black, were taken to Area 1 headquarters.

At trial, Alexander testified that the officers cuffed him to a chair in the basement of the station and left him there for three hours. When they finally returned, the officers questioned Alexander about two recent robberies, one of which had involved the shooting of a bystander. Alexander testified that when he denied that he was involved, one of the officers hit him across the nose so hard he fell off the chair he was cuffed to. Then the officers kicked him and began to beat him with their fists and sticks. Alexander said that when he continued to deny that he was involved in the robberies, the officers took him to a nearby water fountain. There, they held his head under water three or four times.

At that point, Alexander confessed. Strangely, that confession was never reduced to writing. Instead, police officers testified about their memory of his oral confession at his trial. The only other evidence linking Alexander to the crimes was a gun that was found on the roof of Alexander’s apartment building. Other evidence presented at trial established that the gun, which was identified as the weapon used during the robberies, belonged to the man Alexander had been arrested with.

Alexander challenged his confession at his trial, arguing that it had been coerced by torture. To support his motion to suppress, he described his mistreatment at the hands of the police. He also offered testimony from the other man who had been arrested with him and a doctor from Provident Hospital, who treated him that evening. Both testified that they saw lacerations on Alexander’s face after his interrogation. The doctor also testified that he sutured a laceration on Alexander’s forehead. In addition, Alexander offered into evidence the “Inmate’s Record” that was prepared by an intake officer at Cook County Jail when Alexander was admitted following his interrogation. That official document recorded that at the time he was admitted to the jail Alexander had a cut on his left cheek and a “hemorrhage in the rt. eye–bad.”

The police officers who testified denied that anyone struck or otherwise abused Alexander. The judge, John Fitzgerald, who heard the case without a jury, denied the motion to suppress the confession. He found Alexander guilty and sentenced him to 1-5 years in prison.

On appeal, the First District Appellate Court reversed the verdict, relying on the “established rule that where an accused suffers injuries while in police custody, clear and convincing proof is required to establish that injuries are not the result of police brutality.” (Illinois v. Alexander, 96 Ill. App. 2d 113, 119-120 (1st Dist. 1968)). That court concluded that the police had failed to offer sufficient proof they had not caused Alexander’s injuries.

More light

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).