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.

Occasional victories

Many of the people who claimed they were tortured by police between 1871 and 1971 were unable to convince jurors or judges at their trials of the truth of their claims. Once convicted, most could not afford to bring an appeal, and few of those who could appeal were able to convince the appellate judges to reverse their convictions.  But every so often, a person who claimed to have been tortured into confessing to a crime in Chicago did win.

In September 1946, Leslie Wakat was arrested by Chicago police officers at the Town Hall police station on suspicion of being involved in an arson and burglary at the Lakeview Tool and Die Company in Chicago.

At trial, Wakat and his attorneys tried to keep his confession out of evidence on the ground that he had been tortured into confessing. In his testimony, Wakat described abuse that went on for several hours: He said he was taken to the scene of the time by several officers, and while there had his handcuffed arms twisted behind his back by Officer Harlib and hit in the face several times. Once back at the Town Hall station, he was beaten for half an hour by several officers using a blackjack, a sandbag, and a stick. Then, after a brief period in several other offices in the station, he was taken back to the first room, and beaten until he lost consciousness. He claimed that officers  revived him with whisky and, while he was intoxicated, had him sign a statement. At trial, the officers (and attorneys) present during Wakat’s interrogations denied that anyone beat him. One officer, Suckow, testified at trial that Wakat fell down the stairs; another officer, Harlib, testified that he and Wakat both fell down a flight of stairs as a result of a scuffle at the station. At trial, the jury did not believe Wakat; he was convicted and sentenced to 10-20 years in prison.

Though it took more than a decade, Wakat ultimately managed to convince four different courts to listen to and accept his claims.

  1. Several years after his conviction, Wakat filled a post conviction petition before Judge Graber of the Cook County courts. In his petition, Wakat asked to have his conviction overturned because his constitutional rights were violated when the police coerced his confession and because police offered perjured testimony at his trial. After a hearing, Judge Graber ruled for Wakat and ordered the state to give him a new trial.
  2.  That decision was affirmed on appeal by the Illinois Supreme Court, Illinois v. Wakat, 415 Ill. 610 (1953),  in an opinion written by Justice Walter V. Schaefer. Justice Schaefer noted that “there is neither doubt nor denial that [Wakat] sustained serious injuries while in police custody after his arrest.” (p. XX). Schaefer pointed to the testimony of a county jail physician, who saw Wakat on September 27, three days after his arrest, and described Wakat as having bruises, a broken hand, and injuries to his leg and knee. Wakat had to be hospitalized for more than ten days for those injuries.
  3. After the state decided not to retry Wakat, he sued and won damages against the arresting officers in a federal civil rights case.
  4. That verdict was affirmed on appeal by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Wakat v. Harlib, 253 F. 2d 59 (7th Cir. 1958).

A year later, the ACLU of Illinois published a booklet called Secret Detention by the Chicago Police (1959). Wakat’s mistreatment at the hands of the Chicago police was one of the subjects of that study.