Goldfish & prairies

The “goldfish room,” which figured so prominently in Edmund Fitch‘s claim of police torture in 1923,  also played a role when the police interrogated James Sweeney in 1921. Sweeney, along with Harry Bartlett and several others, had been arrested and convicted for bombing the Beehive Laundry Company during a labor dispute (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502 (1922)).

At trial, Sweeney testified he was interrogated at length by Chicago police officers at the detective bureau and at the state’s attorney’s office. After being held for more than a day at the Brighton Park police station, Sweeney was taken to police chief Fitzmorris’s office for an hour, and then to the state’s attorney’s office. He remained at the state’s attorney’s office for most of the night; he was interrogated there for roughly four hours by two assistant state’s attorneys, Charles Wharton and Milton Smith, and the chief of detectives, Michael Hughes. Then he was taken to a cell, where he stayed less than half an hour before three officers took him to chief Hughes’s office. As they escorted, the officers told Sweeney they were going to show him the goldfish (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 511-512).

As the Illinois Supreme Court put it, “They showed him the goldfish, which was a beating.”

They dragged him around by his hair and started beating him with a rubber hose. He said that Chief Hughes beat him, and two or three other officers who he did not know by name; that [police sergeant] Egan was there at the time and used his fist; that he could recognize the other two officers and had seen one of them in the courtroom since the trial started, — that is, one beside Egan. He said they told him to come clean and tell everything he knew, and plenty besides, or be found out in some prairie (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 511).

Still Sweeney did not confess, so they took him back to a cell for a while, then back to Hughes’s office, where he was beaten again. Then he went back to a cell, and then back to Hughes’s office a third time, where he was beaten once more. After the last beating, Sweeney confessed (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 512). Sweeney also testified that while he was in custody before his confession he had no time to sleep and was fed a single sandwich and a cup of coffee.

Sweeney’s attorney objected when the state tried to submit his confession into evidence at trial. During a hearing on whether the confession was voluntary, Sergeant Egan testified that he did not harm Sweeney or see anyone else do so. None of the other officers or state’s attorney’s testified. The trial judge, M. L. McKinley, held the confession was voluntary and admitted it into evidence. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed.

Judge Guerin and the 3rd Degree

In late fall 1918, Judge Henry Guerin, recently elected to the bench, wrote to the Marcus Kavanagh, chief judge of the Cook County criminal courts. Guerin asked Kavanagh to order an investigation into the use of the third degree.

In his letter, Guerin complained that several defendants who had appeared in his court had testified that they were subject to “brutal treatment” by Chicago police officers and people at the state’s attorney’s office. He noted that jurors believed these claims and acquitted the suspects as a result. Guerin warned that soon it would be impossible to convict anyone in Cook County. A spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office denied that anyone there used the third degree, but welcomed an investigation into the practice. (Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1918, p. 17).

Five months later, Judge Guerin once again spoke out on the third degree after hearing testimony by Joseph Radakowitz, on trial for the murder of Fred Papke.  Radakowitz testified that after he was arrested police officers threatened to knock his brains out, to whip him, to hit him with clubs to try to get him to confess. Radakowitz also claimed that when he was questioned at the state’s attorney’s office, he was told he would be beaten up if he did not answer questions (Chicago Tribune, April 12, 1919, p.17).

Guerin refused to admit the confession into evidence. After the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, Guerin made a speech deploring Radakowitz’s claims that he had been threatened by the police and employees of the state’s attorney’s office. Such a proceeding, Guerin said,

is absolutely in violation of the law. It is a violation permitted by the police department and the state’s attorney’s office; by the men to whom we look to protect the law and to protect the citizens of this country. It is a matter that requires investigation by the grand jury (Chicago Tribune, April 12, 1919, p. 17)

The state’s attorney’s office was quick to denounce Judge Guerin, complaining that the

practice of censuring the state’s attorney and the police department before juries not only weakens the morale and intimidates these officials but tends to bring the law which the state’s attorney and the police are trying to enforce in disrepute and contempt, not only in the minds of the criminals, but in the hearts of the juries (Chicago Tribune, April 12, 1919, p. 17).

The grand jury did hear evidence about use of the third degree in a session in April 1919 (Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1919, p. 10; Chicago Tribune, April 27, 1919, 13). In May 1919, the jury issued a report on that investigation. It found “no evidence that third degree methods were used by Assistant State’s Attorney John Owen in the confession of Joseph Radakawitz (sic); rather that Mr. Owen deserves commendation for his manner of handling that case”(Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1919, p. 1).

Judge Guerin did not pursue the issue of the third degree any further. He died in a boating accident in September 1919 (Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1919, p. 1).