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).

 

 

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).