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.

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The Third Degree: Chapter 11: The deputies prepare their defense

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 Eleven

The deputies prepare their defense

Even prior to the manslaughter indictments of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest L. Fleming, Charles O. Skinner and Frank Lee for the “third degree” beating death of jail inmate Martin Virant, the deputies and their attorneys, Jesse Black and W. J. Reardon, had already begun to plot out their defense strategy.

Black gave a hint of that strategy when he issued a broadside attack against Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in early September, accusing Allen of inflaming the public against his clients and boasting that the deputies would be exonerated.

On Oct. 24, 1932, Black and Reardon filed a motion for a change of venue. Their motion was expected, because Virant’s murder was one of the most sensational crimes in Tazewell County’s history, and inevitably had dominated the front pages of all the newspapers in the Pekin area for almost the entire month of September 1932.

Judge Joseph E. Daily heard arguments for and against the motion at the Tazewell County Courthouse on Oct. 31.

“In the first exhibit offered by Attorney Black,” reported that day’s Pekin Daily Times, “was a front page of an issue of the Pekin Daily Times, which paper the court was again reminded, had a wide circulation thruout Tazewell county, containing articles relating to Virant’s death, which the attorney contended tended to create a prejudice against the defendants, and also containing alleged testimony which would not be admitted by a court of record.”

Judge Daily took the matter under advisement, saying he would not issue his decision until Nov. 12. Not just the gravity of the case, but also the fast-approaching general election, gave him a good reason to delay ruling on the question. In the autumn of 1932, the Great Depression was in full swing, and incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover was facing a formidable challenge from Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But while action on the case paused in the courtrooms, the accused deputies continued efforts in their own defense. While their attorneys had charge of legal strategy, the deputies opted for an unorthodox and somewhat cynical angle of counterattack: taking their cause into the political ring, the deputies quietly but determinedly campaigned for the defeat at the polls of Coroner Allen and State’s Attorney Louis Dunkelberg.

In the case of Allen, their campaigning for his defeat seems to have been simply out of spite. If Allen were defeated by his Democratic challenger Dr. Nelson A. Wright Jr., it would have little if any effect on their prosecution or on their chances of conviction or acquittal.

The electoral defeat of Dunkelberg, however, would very likely deal the prosecution a very serious setback. Then nearing the completion of his second four-year term in office, Dunkelberg was an experienced and accomplished prosecutor, and it was he who had filed the charges in the Virant case and had midwifed the case through the grand jury.

His Democratic challenger was Nathan T. Elliff, a young barrister working in the law office of his father, Pekin attorney John T. Elliff. In fact, he was a mere 23 years old and had only been an attorney for four years, passing the bar at the tender age of 19. The contrast between the legal and prosecutorial experience of Dunkelberg and Elliff almost could not have been greater.

We may also wonder whether or not, in quietly opposing Dunkelberg’s re-election, the deputies may have wanted to create a feeling of gratitude or debt in the mind of the little experienced and untested Elliff. Did they hope to influence how, or whether, Elliff would proceed with their case?

No matter how quiet their campaign, though, the family of the murder victim eventually got wind of what the deputies had been doing. Just before Election Day, the family of Martin Virant took out a last-minute political advertisement in the Nov. 7, 1932 Pekin Daily Times, entitled, “A WORD FROM THE BROTHER AND SISTER OF MARTIN VIRANT, DECEASED,” and signed, “Frank Virant, Mrs. Agnes Franko.”

Upon learning that the deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death were working to help defeat the county prosecutor and coroner in the polling booth, Virant's family published a note in the Pekin Daily Times just before Election Day urging voters to re-elect Louis P. Dunkelberg and Dr. Arthur E. Allen.

Upon learning that the deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death were working to help defeat the county prosecutor and coroner in the polling booth, Virant’s family published a note in the Pekin Daily Times just before Election Day urging voters to re-elect Louis P. Dunkelberg and Dr. Arthur E. Allen.

“We have just found that the deputy sheriffs who are now being prosecuted for our brother Martin’s death are going around trying to get their close friends to vote against Dr. Allen and States Attorney Dunkelberg. They think that if Dr. Allen and Mr. Dunkelberg are defeated it will help them a lot in their trial.

“We want the people to know that Dr. Allen and Mr. Dunkelberg did all in their power to investigate Martin’s death and it was through their work that the truth was given to the people. We have been helping them in every way, and we want the people of Tazewell County to know that we want them elected again so that they can go on with Martin’s case. If there is any justice in Tazewell County, Dr. Allen and Mr. Dunkelberg will get the votes of all honest Americans who want to see us and our brother, Martin, get a square deal.”

Their last-minute appeal, however, was in vain. Although initial election returns looked promising for Allen – the Daily Times on Nov. 7 even incorrectly predicted, “Coroner A. E. Allen Will Be Re-Elected” – nevertheless both he and Dunkelberg were swept away by the Democratic tsunami that swept the Republican Party out of power almost everywhere in the country, from the top of the ticket to the bottom.

Since most voters blamed the Republicans for the Great Depression, the accused deputies may have had no need to lend their support to Wright and Elliff – voter antipathy for Republicans that year was so strong that the Democrats probably could have run almost anyone against Allen and Dunkelberg and been assured of victory.

Next week: The Virant manslaughter trial is moved.

#agnes-franko, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #ernest-fleming, #frank-lee, #frank-virant, #jesse-black, #john-t-elliff, #judge-joseph-e-daily, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #nelson-a-wright, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon