The Third Degree: Chapter 19: The deputies’ defense team rests its 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 Nineteen

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.

As indicated in this excerpt from a March 2, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, the credibility of the prosecution's key witness Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria was thrown into doubt by the defense in the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff's deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, who were accused of causing the death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant.

As indicated in this excerpt from a March 2, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, the credibility of the prosecution’s key witness Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria was thrown into doubt by the defense in the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, who were accused of causing the death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant.

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 . . .’

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The Third Degree: Chapter 18: The defense pleads its 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 Eighteen

The defense pleads its case

At the end of a long succession of witnesses and physical evidence, the prosecution rested its case on Feb. 26, 1933, in the trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner, who were accused of causing the death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant by severely beating him during a so-called “third degree” interrogation.

The following day, the defense attorneys Jesse Black Jr. and William J. Reardon began to call their own lengthy list of witnesses and experts, who would help the defense build its case that the deputies never did any violence to Virant, nor did they hang his dead body – rather, the defense contended, Virant had committed suicide. Heading the witness list was J. Hardy Garber, a deputy who helped Skinner bring Virant to and from the Lew Nelan murder inquest.

Garber and the three other deputies involved in this case – Fleming and Skinner, who both took the stand in their own defense, and Frank Lee, originally indicted by the Tazewell County grand jury but whose charges were dropped just before the trial began in Menard County – offered very important testimony.

Presenting a united front, they resolutely denied that anyone had done more than raise his voice at Virant while he was in the custody of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department. The four deputies agreed that there had been absolutely no beating or kicking or any kind of rough handling.

The four deputies did state, however, that they noticed Virant had some cuts and bruises about his head and neck when he was first brought to the jail. They denied knowing how Virant had gotten those injuries.

The deputies also agreed that Virant became very frightened and upset, and refused to let them take his fingerprints, after Lee brought in a package containing two metal pipes and unrolled it in Virant’s presence.

Skinner and Fleming also supplied a very important element of the defense’s alternate scenario of Virant’s injuries and death. Flatly contradicting former Coroner A. E. Allen’s testimony that he had eased Virant’s body to the cell floor when he cut his body down, Skinner and Fleming claimed Allen had irresponsibly and unprofessionally let Virant’s body crash to the floor. Virant’s body had even slammed against the toilet as it fell, the accused deputies insisted.

Relying on their medical experts, the defense argued that most of Virant’s bruises and injuries, including his broken rib, were caused when Allen cut his body down and let it crash to the floor. Also backing up this claim were three jail inmates, Charles Cameron, 62, formerly of Delavan, Joe Hensley, and Thomas Davis.

Cameron, a jail trustee, told the jurors, “I saw Allen cut the strap and saw Virant fall on the toilet bowl. He came down awful hard . . . He was dropped. Mr. Allen didn’t touch him. . . . It jarred the whole floor of the cell.” Cameron even claimed that Allen jumped out of the way so Virant’s body would hit the toilet as it fell.

Hensley, another jail trustee, corroborated some of Cameron’s testimony, claiming, “I heard the sound when he was cut down. It came down hard. . . . I heard a loud thump on the iron floor – loud enough to be heard outside of the jail.”

In cross-examination, however, Elliff showed that Cameron’s testimony differed significantly from what he had previously told the Tazewell County grand jury and disagreed with a statement he had made to former Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg on Sept. 9, 1932.

Cameron responded to Elliff’s questions by disavowing most of his prior statement, and in particular he denied speaking to fellow inmate Elizabeth Spearman. Cameron’s original statements had corroborated key elements of Spearman’s testimony, which supported the state’s case that Fleming and Skinner had beaten Virant.

Some of Hensley’s testimony was especially helpful to the defense’s contention that Virant had committed suicide. Hensley claimed that during Virant’s first night in the jail, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 1932, “I heard the bunk chains rattling and then like someone came off the bunk onto the floor. That was after 2 o’clock. Then I heard moaning and groaning. . . . I heard him saying, ‘Poor John, he did I did too.’”

The words Hensley claimed to have heard Virant say, according to the defense, amounted to a confession that he had helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan. A sense of guilt over his role in Nelan’s death was the reason he committed suicide, the defense attorneys claimed.

Davis also testified that he heard noises from Virant’s cell three times that night as of someone jumping off the bunk, including at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. In addition, Davis claimed to have heard the same kind of noise sometime after 1 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1, and to have heard Virant making a noise.

The defense argued that the noises Hensley and Davis said they heard Tuesday night were not the groans of a man who had been severely beaten, but were the sounds of Virant attempting to hang himself using some strings and threads that investigators found in his cell after his death.

The defense attorneys suggested that some of Virant’s injuries may have been caused during this purported first suicide attempt, but they did not try to explain why Virant would have opted first for strings that were unlikely to support his own weight and only two days later decide to use his own belt.

The defense also claimed that Davis had heard the sounds of Virant killing himself on Thursday, Sept. 1.

Or were they the sounds of deputies faking Virant’s suicide?

Next week: The defense rests.

In the sensational case of the &quotthird degree" death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant, prosecutors contended that Virant succumbed to severe injuries he'd suffered at the hands of Sheriff's deputies, who then staged a hanging even though he obviously had died before his body was hanged. But defense attorneys, relying on testimony such as that found in this detail from a March 1, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, countered by insinuating that Virant helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan and then, wracked by guilt, hanged himself in his jail cell. The defense argued that Virant's severe injuries were inflicted by Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, whom the defense claimed was incompetent and careless.

In the sensational case of the “third degree” death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant, prosecutors contended that Virant succumbed to severe injuries he’d suffered at the hands of Sheriff’s deputies, who then staged a hanging even though he obviously had died before his body was hanged. But defense attorneys, relying on testimony such as that found in this detail from a March 1, 1933 Pekin Daily Times report, countered by insinuating that Virant helped John Petje murder Lew Nelan and then, wracked by guilt, hanged himself in his jail cell. The defense argued that Virant’s severe injuries were inflicted by Tazewell County Coroner Arthur E. Allen, whom the defense claimed was incompetent and careless.

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