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 deputies’ defense team rests its case
During the two weeks of the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner in late February and early March 1933, the prosecution and the defense presented the jury with their explanations of how Tazewell County jail inmate Martin Virant had ended up dead and hanging in his cell on Sept. 1, 1932.
The state contended that because Virant denied any involvement in the murder of Lewis Nelan, the deputies administered a so-called “third degree” interrogation of Virant, beating and torturing him to extract useful information or a confession. The prosecutors said Virant succumbed to his injuries, and the deputies, finding Virant dead, arranged the death scene to make it appear that he had committed suicide by hanging.
But the defense insinuated that Virant had in fact participated in Nelan’s murder, and, overcome by guilt, he hanged himself in his cell.
One of the witnesses for the defense, jail inmate Joe Hensley, even claimed to have heard Virant say, “Poor John, he did I did too.” Those words, according to the defense, amounted to a confession that he had helped John Petje murder Nelan.
To establish their alternate scenario, the defense had to explain the compelling evidence that Virant had been horrifically beaten and that he had already died prior to being hanged. To overcome that evidence, the defense called three medical experts, who cast doubt upon the death investigation and the findings of the state’s experts.
The defense’s experts offered no explanation for the testimony of former Tazewell County Coroner Dr. Arthur E. Allen, who said Virant’s body showed none of the usual signs of a hanging death. To deal with Dr. Allen’s testimony, the defense attorneys endeavored to impeach his credibility by insinuating that Allen was involved in a personal political vendetta against Fleming and Skinner.
Allen, a Republican, had recently lost his re-election bid to the Democrat’s candidate Dr. Nelson A. Wright Jr., and Fleming and Skinner had quietly encouraged people to vote for Wright. Fleming and Skinner, both Democrats, also had campaigned against Allen four years earlier. During cross-examination of Allen, defense attorney Jesse Black Jr. suggested that Allen harbored resentment against Fleming and Skinner.
In effect, Black insinuated that Allen had framed Fleming and Skinner, with the implication that Allen had lied about Virant’s body not showing the usual signs of a hanging death, and also had lied about easing Virant’s body to the floor when he had really, so Black and several defense witnesses claimed, allowed the body to crash to the floor.
Also called to testify at the trial was former Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg, who according to the defense’s scenario would have been Allen’s co-conspirator in the framing of Fleming and Skinner. The four deputies who testified for the defense claimed Dunkelberg had seen Virant briefly during part of the time he was interrogated by the deputies.
However, when the state called Dunkelberg to the stand and asked him to describe Virant’s appearance, the defense objected and Judge Williams upheld their objection, so Dunkelberg was not allowed to say if Virant had any injuries on him when he saw him.
Notably, one person central to the drama of Virant’s death was never called as a witness in this trial: Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby. Neither the prosecution nor the defense summoned him to testify, because Crosby was still convalescing from the severe heart attack he’d suffered on Nov. 5, 1932.
To put the finishing touches on its case, the defense called a series of character witnesses, who testified that Deputies Fleming and Skinner were men of character and virtue who would be very unlikely to commit acts of violence.
The defense also called another series of character witnesses to undermine the credibility of jail inmate Elizabeth Spearman, whose testimony for the prosecution had strongly implied that Fleming and Skinner had beaten Virant. The testimony of these character witnesses was very helpful to the defense – and the defense lawyers also made a great deal of Spearman’s error that Fleming and Skinner, rather than Skinner and Hardy Garber, had taken Virant to the Nelan inquest.
The defense’s attack on Spearman was so effective that in the end, when the defense rested on Thursday, March 2, 1933, the defense attorneys made a motion to have the whole of Spearman’s testimony quashed and stricken from the record.
Next week: ‘We, the jury, find the defendants . . .’