With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we continue our series on a pair of sensational deaths that occurred in Pekin, Illinois, during the Prohibition Era. The Local History Room columns in this series, entitled “The Third Degree,” originally ran in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times from Sept. 15, 2012, to March 2, 2013.
THE THIRD DEGREE
By Jared Olar
The state presents its case
With a jury of 12 men selected and sworn in, the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest L. Fleming and Charles O. Skinner immediately got under way on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1933, at the Menard County Courthouse in Petersburg, Ill.
The two deputies were accused of causing the death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant of East Peoria by beating him severely while administering what was in those days euphemistically known as “the third degree” (i.e., the police beating and torture of suspects and witness in order to extract confessions or useful or incriminating information).
Before the actual trial began, however, the prosecution was dealt a setback when Judge Guy Williams ruled that Virant’s testimony at the inquest into the murder of Lewis Nelan, when Virant publicly accused Skinner and other deputies of beating him, was inadmissible hearsay.
Long-established procedural rules dictated that hearsay, and testimony from dead persons, are usually inadmissible as evidence at trial. Virant’s inquest testimony was explosive, and particularly damning for Skinner, so understandably the state argued that the circumstances and substance of Virant’s inquest testimony constituted an exception to the usual rules and therefore should be admitted.
Judge Williams was unconvinced by their arguments, however. His ruling made the task of tying Skinner and Fleming to Virant’s death more difficult, but the state had known that the quashing of Virant’s accusation was a real possibility. Menard County State’s Attorney John M. Smoot and Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff would have to try to link Skinner and Fleming to the crime through the testimony of Tazewell County Jail inmates.
One of those inmates was Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria, who gave testimony on Wednesday, Feb. 22, that was potentially at least as damning as the Virant inquest testimony that had been disallowed.
Spearman testified that around 2:45 p.m. on Aug. 30, 1932, she saw Skinner and Fleming take Virant out of the jail. They brought him back about three hours later, just before the 6 p.m. supper. She then overheard Virant tell the deputies, “My side – him hurt.”
Spearman said Fleming responded, “Your side will hurt a lot worse if you don’t tell us something.”
Virant then said, “How I tell you anything if I know nothing. You take my fingerprints and make me murder man.” Skinner replied, “We’ll take your fingerprints or else.”
Then, according to Spearman, about 7 p.m. Fleming and Skinner again took Virant out of his cell. Spearman said she saw them take Virant around the corner of the jail and not to the courthouse (this was actually on Aug. 31, when Virant was taken to the Lew Nelan inquest, but it was Skinner and Hardy Garber who took Virant to the inquest, not Skinner and Fleming). The deputies brought him back to his cell around 9 p.m., after the courthouse lights had gone out.
At that time, Spearman heard Virant imploring the deputies, “Please get me a doctor and my sister in Peoria.”
Spearman testified, “He said that they had beaten him and he was going to die. Fleming said, ‘You are a long way from being dead – we’ll get you a doctor in the morning.’”
She also said that at one point Virant was “close enough to touch with my crutch,” and it was obvious that Virant was severely injured.
“He could hardly walk – had blood on his suit. The right side of his face and ear were bloody,” she said.
According to the Feb. 22, 1933 Pekin Daily Times, “Mrs. Spearman then related how she heard Virant moaning and groaning during the night. The next afternoon about 12 o’clock she said Deputy Fleming came upstairs. He went and looked out the window toward Hackler’s drug store; then went in where Virant was. After about five minutes he came out and went downstairs. She heard nothing, but saw him leave.
“About an hour later she saw Skinner about the cell. Still later she said she saw Skinner come out of the courthouse followed by two or three men and women. Skinner came across and reached the porch; then Fleming came hurrying after him and the two deputies started into the jail together. Skinner went on up to the cell, and Fleming hollered to him, ‘Bring that boy down here.’
“Skinner called back down, ‘He’s hung himself.’
“‘Hung himself!’ echoed Fleming.
Fleming then hastened upstairs, coming back down very soon after. Coroner A. E. Allen arrived on the scene shortly after that, Spearman said.
Next week: The prosecution painstakingly lays out the case.