The Third Degree: Chapter 15: The prosecution painstakingly lays out the case

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
Library assistant

Chapter Fifteen

The prosecution painstakingly lays out the case

On Feb. 21, 1933, the first day of the Martin Virant manslaughter trial in Petersburg, Ill., prosecutors began to build their case that Virant, an inmate at the Tazewell County Jail in Pekin, had been brutally beaten by Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest L. Fleming and Charles O. Skinner.

Virant, a potential witness in the Lew Nelan murder case, was found hanging in his cell on Sept. 1, 1932, but investigators and a coroner’s inquest jury found that he was already dead when he was hanged, and that the hanging had been staged to try to cover up the true cause of death.

Many of the same people who testified at the Virant inquest on Sept. 14, 1932, also testified during the manslaughter trial. For example, the first witness for the prosecution was Frank Franko of Peoria, Virant’s brother-in-law, who repeated for the jury what he had previously testified at the inquest.

Next, the jurors heard testimony from Tazewell County Jail inmate Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria, who provided crucial testimony on behalf of the prosecution regarding Virant’s treatment and statements he made, as well as the injuries he suffered while in the custody of the county’s deputies.

Spearman’s testimony was vital to the state’s case, because, on account of Virant being dead, Judge Guy Williams had excluded as inadmissible hearsay the entirety of Virant’s testimony at the Lew Nelan inquest, when a noticeably injured Virant boldly accused Skinner and other deputies of nearly beating him to death.

After Spearman’s testimony, the state called Peoria attorney Vic Michael, legal counsel for the Virant family who was representing them in a wrongful death lawsuit against Tazewell County Sheriff James J. Crosby. On Sept. 1, Michael had accompanied Virant’s sister and Frank Franko to Pekin to get Virant released from jail.

According to the Pekin Daily Times, “Michael related that he had gone to the sheriff’s office in the courthouse and talked to Deputies Skinner and Fleming. Finally Skinner said, ‘Oh, go get the —– out.’ Skinner started to walk across the yard with Attorney Michael and his party following. Then, related Michael: ‘All of a sudden I saw a newspaper man named Watson of the Pekin paper go by on the right. He ran up the jail steps into the jail. I decided something must be up and I followed. The door was shut, but a lady let me in. Dr. Allen was just pronouncing Virant dead after trying to revive him with artificial respiration.’ Michael related that Virant’s right ear was swollen and he had bruises on the back of his head and a hole in the head was bleeding.”

Like Michael, several other witnesses provided testimony establishing that Virant had no visible injuries when he was first brought to the jail on Aug. 30, 1932, and describing Virant’s injuries that they saw at the Nelan inquest or on his dead body. Among those witnesses was Pekin attorney James St. Cerny, who was called to the stand after Michael and who testified that Virant had no visible injuries when he was booked into the jail.

Similarly, in testimony on the second day of the trial, Feb. 22, 1933, Edward Tucker, East Peoria city clerk, George Reichelderfer, superintendent of East Peoria water works, and Charles Schmidt, East Peoria justice of the peace, all said that Virant had no visible injuries when they saw him with Deputy Skinner in East Peoria on Aug. 30. Frank Virant, however, saw his brother’s body at the undertakers on the day of his death, and noticed “a black spot on his left ear that extended down to his jaw,” which obviously could not have resulted from a hanging.

The next to testify was George Genseal, who, like Virant, had been brought to the jail as a suspect in the Nelan murder case, but subsequently was released. He reiterated what he had said at Virant’s inquest, substantiating key points of Spearman’s testimony. After Genseal, Edward Hufeld, one of the defendants in the Nelan case, was called to the stand.

The detail from a page of the Feb. 22, 1933 edition of the Pekin Daily Times shows a portion of the testimony of Edward Hufeld, who was called as a prosecution witness in the manslaughter trial of two Tazewell County Sheriff's deputies accused of beating and torturing jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

The detail from a page of the Feb. 22, 1933 edition of the Pekin Daily Times shows a portion of the testimony of Edward Hufeld, who was called as a prosecution witness in the manslaughter trial of two Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies accused of beating and torturing jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

In relating the events of how Virant was found hanging in his cell, Hufeld told much the same story as Genseal. However, Hufeld provided an important additional detail. As the Pekin Daily Times reported on Feb. 22, 1933, Hufeld testified, “When Skinner came into the jail I could hear him when he called up to Martin. He said ‘Martin’ a couple of times. Q. Was he outside the cell then? A. Well, before he went clear up he said, ‘That damn monkey must have hung himself.’”

If Hufeld was remembering truthfully and accurately, this comment would suggest that even before he had ascended the stairs to the upper tier of cells, Skinner already knew he would find Virant dead and hanging.

On the third day of the trial, Feb. 23, the state called H. A. McCance, jury foreman at the Nelan inquest, and asked him to describe Virant’s appearance and demeanor during the inquest. Though Virant’s testimony at the inquest was inadmissible, McCane still was able to tell the jury that Virant appeared to be in pain or distress, and that his face appeared to be in misery.

Also called to describe Virant during the Nelan inquest was Janese Shipley, stenographer at the Nelan inquest. She testified that Virant had two black eyes, a swollen ear and blood on his shirt shoulder, and that Virant spoke in a voice that was “louder than an ordinary person.”

As the trial continued, the state made its way down its lengthy list of witnesses, methodically and painstakingly – and at times tediously – laying out its case for the deputies’ guilt.

But thanks to defense attorney Jesse Black Jr. of Pekin, the trial proceedings never stayed boring for very long.

Next week: The courtroom theatrics of Attorney Black.

#charles-schmidt, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #edward-hufeld, #edward-tucker, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #frank-franko, #frank-virant, #george-genseal, #george-reichelderfer, #h-a-mccance, #j-p-st-cerny, #janese-shipley, #jesse-black, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree, #victor-michael

The Third Degree: Chapter 5: Deputy Skinner issues denials

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
Library assistant

Chapter Five

Deputy Skinner issues denials

On Sept. 1, 1932, Martin Virant of East Peoria was found dead in his cell at the Tazewell County Jail in Pekin. The Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office claimed Virant had committed suicide by hanging.

It was just the night before, testifying under oath as a witness at the inquest into the murder of Lewis P. Nelan, that Virant had boldly accused Deputy Charles O. Skinner and other deputies of savagely beating him.

Two autopsies and the findings of an expert Chicago criminologist were all in agreement that Virant did not die from hanging, but rather had succumbed to numerous severe injuries he had suffered in a beating. Armed with the results of the investigation of Virant’s death, on Sept. 5 Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg swore out a warrant for Skinner’s arrest.

This photograph of Martin Virant, who died of injuries suffered at the hands of Tazewell County Sheriff's deputies in the county jail, was printed on the front page of the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal.

This photograph of Martin Virant, who died of injuries suffered at the hands of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies in the county jail, was printed on the front page of the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal.

On Tuesday, Sept. 6, word spread that Skinner, who was in Aurora that day on official business, would be arrested for murder, and a crowd gathered in and around the courthouse in downtown Pekin.

Concerned that the crowd could become a lynch mob, Sheriff James J. Crosby “as a measure of precaution swore in a number of special deputies,” according to the Sept. 7, 1932 Pekin Daily Times. “These deputies remained on duty about the courthouse and mingled with the crowd during the evening in an effort to judge its temper, some of them remaining on duty all night.”

As another precaution, Pekin Police Chief Ralph Goar arranged to serve the arrest warrant as soon as Skinner returned from Aurora, before anyone in the crowd was aware of his return. Goar offered Skinner a choice between surrendering at the sheriff’s office and being held in Pekin, or surrendering in Peoria and being held in the Peoria County Jail.

According to the Sept. 17, 1932 Peoria Journal, when Goar told him of the warrant for his arrest, “Deputy Skinner was much affected, slumped down in the seat of his auto and cried. Chief Goar is quoted as saying that Deputy Skinner remarked to him: ‘Well, they’re not going to saddle it all onto me.’”

This photograph of Tazewell County Sheriff's Deputy Charles O. Skinner was published on the front page of the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal.

This photograph of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles O. Skinner was published on the front page of the 17 Sept. 1932 Peoria Journal.

Terrified of the gathered crowd, Skinner asked to be taken to Peoria. He also asked Goar not to drive through East Peoria, where anger against Skinner had been aroused by the allegations of what he had done to Virant.

According to the Sept. 7, 1932 Daily Times, after Skinner was brought to the Peoria County Jail, State’s Attorney Dunkelberg and Coroner A. E. Allen questioned him for almost an hour.

Of that interview, the Times reported, “Skinner is quoted as denying emphatically that he ever struck, beat or kicked Virant or stood on the man’s neck as Virant had declared at the Nelan inquest.

“’I did not hit the man at any time,’ he declared in reply to a direct question.

“Ask[ed] who did, Skinner declared, ‘I don’t know any one who did.’

“When asked why Virant had named him at the Nelan inquest, Skinner’s answer was that he supposed it was because he was the only officer Virant knew by name, he having known him for several months.”

In a story on the front page of the Sept. 8, 1932 Pekin Daily Times, Virant’s brother-in-law Frank Franko affirmed that Virant and Skinner knew each other, and said that Virant thought very little of Skinner’s character. “Martin often say to me, ‘Skinner is a bad man,’” Franko told the Daily Times.

Further on, the Sept. 7 Daily Times story said, “Asked to explain why Virant was handcuffed when brought to the Nelan inquest, while three other men charged with Nelan’s murder were not handcuffed, Skinner said that Virant had attempted to escape on the way from the jail to Kuecks Funeral home, where the inquest was held, and that he had put the handcuffs on him. He denied shoving the man or treating him roughly at any time while taking him to or from the jail.

“It was pointed out to Skinner that Virant probably was dead when he was hanging in his cell.

“’Well, if he was hung up there by somebody, it wasn’t me,’ the deputy replied. ‘Somebody else done it.’

“In answer to further questions, Skinner explained that Virant had given himself up in East Peoria to Skinner when the latter went there to question him about the Nelan case.

“’Was he beaten up then? Did he have black eyes or a swollen ear?’ the deputy was asked.

“’I didn’t notice.’

“’But you did notice signs of beating when Virant was at the Nelan inquest, didn’t you?’

“’No, I didn’t. When Coroner Allen cut his body down, I saw a mark on his forehead, but that’s all I noticed.’

“Coroner Allen said it was peculiar that Virant had no marks on him before he was arrested and showed many marks after he was in the custody of the sheriff’s force, yet the latter made no effort to find out how the man came to be injured. Skinner said he didn’t know about this.

“At the end of the questioning, Skinner voluntarily denied again that he had ever beaten Virant.”

Next week: Skinner sees the judge.

#charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #frank-franko, #lew-nelan, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #ralph-goar, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree