War on Crime

In July 1928, the Chicago Tribune told its readers that the Chicago Crime Commission felt that justice was slowly “regaining lost ground” in Chicago’s criminal courts. The Commission’s report on Chicago’s “war on crime” noted that judges were spending more time on the bench and there were more jury trials in the criminal courts. As a result, sentences for major crimes were increasing. To provide context for the Commission’s report, the Tribune offered a quick glimpse at pending cases at the criminal courts. In one, the trial of Azar Holick (or Holic) for murder, jury selection was moving promptly before Judge Joseph David. The paper expressed hope that this meant the case would quickly go to trial (Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1928).

There was reason to want a quick resolution of the case. Holick was on trial for the murder of Anthony Banas, a butcher who had been shot during the robbery of his store on a particularly violent weekend in November 1926. Banas was the only murder victim that weekend, but the extraordinary number of other crimes that weekend–30 armed robberies, 83 car thefts, and a series of bombings–did much to explain why the Crime Commission felt a war on crime was necessary (Chicago Tribune, November 29, 1926).

That July, Judge David confirmed the Tribune‘s faith that Chicago’s criminal justice system could work: Holick’s jury was empaneled in two days, heard the evidence, and promptly sentenced Holick to life in prison (Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1928; Chicago Tribune, July 21, 1928).

Then it all came apart. In December 1929, just over a year after his conviction, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the verdict against Holick (Illinois v. Holick, 333 Ill. 337 (1929)).

What went wrong? According to the Illinois Supreme Court, quite a few things, starting with Holick’s arrest. Holick, who had no criminal record and, at age 27, lived with his mother and worked as a laborer, was taken into custody on November 21, 1927, almost a year after Banas was killed. At the time of his arrest, Holick was on the mend from serious injuries, a broken jaw and broken ribs, that had kept him in bed for three months. After his arrest, he was taken to the detective bureau and held there for a week, until he was taken to the jail on November 28 (333 Ill. 337).

At trial, Holick testified that while he was in police custody he was questioned for ten hours, and threatened by the officers who interrogated him when he denied that he was involved in the crime. He said that one officer tried to hit him with a blackjack, but missed when he was able to duck, and that other officers pulled at his hair to jerk his neck back and twisted his arms during the interrogation. Holick also testified that at the end of his extensive interrogation the officers gave him a “confession” that they had written, and told him to sign it. He said he did so because he was scared of what would happen if he refused (333 Ill. 337).

In addition to Holick’s testimony about his interrogation, his lawyers offered evidence from several witnesses who testified that the weekend Anthony Banas was being killed, Holick, his mother, and sister were visiting a family in Indiana (333 Ill. 337).

The Illinois Supreme Court concluded that Holick’s confession had not been made voluntarily, and criticized Judge David for failing to take the time to fully investigate Holick’s claim that his confession was involuntary (333 Ill. 337).

 

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).

 

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.