The Third Degree: Chapter 16: The courtroom theatrics of Attorney Black

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.


By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Sixteen

The courtroom theatrics of Attorney Black

Three days into the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, who were accused of causing the Sept. 1, 1932 death of jail inmate Martin Virant, prosecutors had made great progress in laying out their case.

Ample witness testimony had established that Virant was uninjured when he first came to the jail on Aug. 30, but somehow had acquired several noticeable injuries about the head and neck by the time he was brought to the Lew Nelan murder inquest on Aug. 31. Testimony from jail inmate Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria also strongly suggested that Virant’s injuries had been caused by Skinner and Fleming.

In response, during cross examination the deputies’ attorneys, Jesse Black Jr. and William J. Reardon, diligently attempted to discredit or throw doubt upon the testimony of the state’s witnesses. Black and Reardon were both retired Tazewell County judges, and their great legal skill and extensive courtroom experience were prominently displayed during this trial.

Black’s style and personality often broke up the trial’s tedium and monotony, though it wasn’t always clear whether his approach was helping or harming the defense. At times Black’s enthusiasm could get the better of him, and Judge Guy Williams would have to admonish him for being too aggressive or too hostile in his cross examination.

Black also reveled in the use of his own body, or the body of co-attorney Reardon, as if they were exhibits for the defense.

One of those times came on Feb. 23, 1933, during Black’s cross examination of Edward Jackson, embalmer at Kuecks Funeral Home, who was present at the Lew Nelan inquest and saw that Virant was hurt.

“I noticed that his right ear was black and his neck down to his shirt collar was black and what I took to be blood on his shirt collar,” Jackson said, also noting “a black spot that looked like coagulated blood under the skin or a bruise on the back of his neck.”

Also, after Virant died, Jackson took his body from the jail to back to Kuecks. Jackson saw that Virant had two black eyes, the right ear was black, the neck was black, and he had about six large bruises in the middle of his back and on the shoulder blade.

As he questioned Jackson, Black asked him to explain how he embalmed Virant’s body. Black took off his jacket so Jackson could “demonstrate” embalming on his own body, but the demonstration didn’t get very far before Judge Williams upheld the state’s objection that Black’s line of questioning was irrelevant.

Probably the liveliest – and no doubt the most (unintentionally) humorous – moment of the trial came on Feb. 24, during Black’s cross examination of former Tazewell County Coroner Dr. Arthur E. Allen.

An absolutely crucial element of the defense’s strategy was to cast as much doubt as possible upon the findings of investigators that Virant was already dead prior to being hanged, and to try to undermine the credibility of the prosecution’s expert witnesses. Black had already attacked Allen’s honesty and impartiality in the press, so there probably was no love lost between the two men as they faced off against each other during an occasionally testy or even heated cross examination at the Menard County Courthouse.

So it was that the Pekin Daily Times headlined its story of Black’s confrontation of Allen, “BLACK SQUIRMS WITH NECK IN STRAP,” giving it the subheadline, “Ex-Coroner And Ex-Judge Furnish Court Example of Hanging; Ends In Laughter.”

An unintentionally humorous episode in the Martin Virant jail hanging trial was featured on the front page of the Pekin Daily Times on Feb. 24, 1933.

An unintentionally humorous episode in the Martin Virant jail hanging trial was featured on the front page of the Pekin Daily Times on Feb. 24, 1933.

Daily Times staff writer Mildred Beardsley reported, “Attorney Jesse Black’s penchant for acting things out in court nearly resulted today in giving the jury first hand information about how a hanging man looks . . .

“Facing each other were Ex-Coroner A. E. Allen, the witness, and Ex-Judge Jesse Black, defense lawyer who was cross examining the witness. They had been glaring at each other all day, the examination of Allen having taken practically all day long.

“Attorney Black, who is about to wear his coat out taking it off and having different imaginary operations performed upon his body, had asked Dr. Allen to take the ‘death belt’ and ‘show the jury on my wrist how it was tied.’

“State’s attorneys promptly objected that a wrist and neck were far different and Judge Williams ruled that if Black wanted the demonstration it would have to be on his neck.

“Dr. Allen was only too glad to put a strap about Black’s neck and did so.

“‘Tighten it up a little,’ said Black, or words to that effect.

“The next thing the crowd knew, the Pekin attorney was gasping for breath.” (Elsewhere, Beardsley reported that Black protested, “I don’t want you to pull so much.”)

“A few moments more and the jury could have seen first hand the blackened face, the protruding tongue, and the frothing mouth of a hanged man – which is the whole point in dispute in this trial.

“The next time Attorney Black decided to take his coat off, he hesitated, glanced at Judge Williams, changed his mind and left his coat on.”

Next week: Clash of the medical experts.

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