Monroe v. Pape & Police Torture

Fifty-five years ago, in 1962, a trial based on civil rights claim filed by James and Flossie Monroe began in the federal district court in Chicago. The suit sought damages against five Chicago police officers: Lieutenant Frank Pape, Captain Howard Pierson, Sergeant Edward Cagney, and detectives John Bosquette and Edward Bray. At the end of the trial the jury awarded the Monroes $13,000, which would be worth just over $104,000 in 2017.

Although recognized as an important civil rights case, Monroe v. Pape should be remembered as a police torture claim as well.

Continue reading Monroe v. Pape & Police Torture

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).

 

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).

 

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.