The Third Degree: Chapter 20: ‘We, the jury, find the defendants . . .’

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 Twenty

‘We, the jury, find the defendants . . .’

On Thursday, March 2, 1932, the defense rested its case in the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Charles Skinner and Ernest Fleming, who were accused of the death of jail inmate Martin Virant.

As the defense lawyers concluded the efforts to exonerate Fleming and Skinner, they delivered a compelling attack on the credibility of the state’s star witness Elizabeth Spearman, whose testimony implicated Skinner and Fleming in the severe injuries Virant had suffered.

In the end, the defense attorneys moved to have the whole of Spearman’s testimony quashed and stricken from the record.

Though Spearman, as an accused criminal and jail inmate, probably had just as great a problem with her credibility and accuracy as most of the defense’s jail inmate witnesses, nevertheless, Menard County Judge Guy Williams granted the defense’s motion.

In closing arguments lasting the entire morning of March 3 – arguments the Pekin Daily Times described as a “powerful oration” – defense attorney Jesse Black, reveling once more in the courtroom drama at which he excelled, denounced and ridiculed the state’s case.

“At times the attorney could be heard a block away as he shouted his denunciation of an attempt to deprive men of their liberty and ‘put them behind grey walls’ without any proof whatsoever,” the Daily Times reported.

In contrast, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff delivered his closing arguments in a calm and quiet demeanor. “As to doubts about this case, I have just two doubts in my mind. One of these is whether this is a murder or a manslaughter. The other doubt in my mind is whether or not we’ve got all the defendants that are guilty,” Elliff said.

After closing arguments, Judge Williams gave instructions to the jury, reminding them to disregard Spearman’s testimony. The case went to the jury at 3:30 p.m. on March 3.

The jurors came back with a verdict at 2:20 p.m. Saturday, March 4, 1933.

JAIL DEATH JURY SAYS ‘NOT GUILTY,’” ran the Pekin Daily Times headline that day.

Both deputies were found not guilty of all charges. It was a stunning victory for Black and his fellow attorney William J. Reardon (though Reardon was called away from the trial at the very end due to the death of his brother in St. Louis on the night of March 2). Their decades of courtroom experience obviously had served them well.

And it was an embarrassing defeat for Elliff, whose youth and inexperience were frequently evident during the course of the trial.

“In Attorneys Reardon and Black, the defense has a pair of crafty barristers of long experience in court cunning. They know when to object and when to be silent,” wrote Pekin Daily Times reporter Mildred Beardsley in the Monday, Feb. 27, 1933 edition of the newspaper.

“They know when to shout in feigned anger and when to ‘Pooh! Pooh!’ in apparent disdain,” Beardsley continued. “These things, I suppose, are learned thru years of experience. More than once Judge Williams has told the youthful prosecutors that he would have sustained them if they had objected.”

In the final analysis, however, perhaps neither the inexperience of the prosecutors, nor the talent of the defense attorneys, nor the valiant attempts of the defense to explain away the convincing forensic evidence that Virant had been beaten and had not died of hanging, were that important in the exoneration of Fleming and Skinner.

The greatest challenge the prosecutors faced wasn’t proving that Virant had been beaten while in custody at the jail, nor that he had already died prior to being hanged – it was proving that Fleming and Skinner were connected to the crime.

Without Virant’s own testimony at the inquest of Lew Nelan, and without Spearman’s testimony, the jury had no evidence that Fleming and Skinner, or any other deputy, had done violence to Virant or faked his suicide. Proving that Virant was the victim of a crime was one thing. Proving that the crime had been committed by Fleming and Skinner was something else altogether.

And so the trial was over. Fleming and Skinner were free men.

Nevertheless, the tragedy of Virant’s death was nowhere near its final act.

Next week: Petitions for impeachment.

The front page of the March 4, 1933 Pekin Daily Times carried the banner headline, "JAIL DEATH JURY SAYS ‘NOT GUILTY'." Thus concluded the trial of the county deputies accused of the "third degree" torture death of Martin Virant. But the tragedy of Virant’s death was nowhere near its final act.

The front page of the March 4, 1933 Pekin Daily Times carried the banner headline, “JAIL DEATH JURY SAYS ‘NOT GUILTY’.” Thus concluded the trial of the county deputies accused of the “third degree” torture death of Martin Virant. But the tragedy of Virant’s death was nowhere near its final act.

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#charles-skinner, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #jesse-black, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #mildred-beardsley, #nathan-t-elliff, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

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 . . .’

#charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #jesse-black, #joe-hensley, #john-petje, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #nelson-a-wright, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree

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.

THE THIRD DEGREE

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.

#charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #edward-jackson, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #jesse-black, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #mildred-beardsley, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

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 14: The state presents 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 Fourteen

The state presents its case

With a jury of 12 men selected and sworn in, the manslaughter trial of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest L. Fleming and Charles O. Skinner immediately got under way on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1933, at the Menard County Courthouse in Petersburg, Ill.

The two deputies were accused of causing the death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant of East Peoria by beating him severely while administering what was in those days euphemistically known as “the third degree” (i.e., the police beating and torture of suspects and witness in order to extract confessions or useful or incriminating information).

Before the actual trial began, however, the prosecution was dealt a setback when Judge Guy Williams ruled that Virant’s testimony at the inquest into the murder of Lewis Nelan, when Virant publicly accused Skinner and other deputies of beating him, was inadmissible hearsay.

Long-established procedural rules dictated that hearsay, and testimony from dead persons, are usually inadmissible as evidence at trial. Virant’s inquest testimony was explosive, and particularly damning for Skinner, so understandably the state argued that the circumstances and substance of Virant’s inquest testimony constituted an exception to the usual rules and therefore should be admitted.

Judge Williams was unconvinced by their arguments, however. His ruling made the task of tying Skinner and Fleming to Virant’s death more difficult, but the state had known that the quashing of Virant’s accusation was a real possibility. Menard County State’s Attorney John M. Smoot and Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff would have to try to link Skinner and Fleming to the crime through the testimony of Tazewell County Jail inmates.

One of those inmates was Elizabeth Spearman of Peoria, who gave testimony on Wednesday, Feb. 22, that was potentially at least as damning as the Virant inquest testimony that had been disallowed.

One of the prosecution's most important witnesses in the trial of the deputies accused of beating Martin Virant to death was a jail inmate named Elizabeth Spearman, of Peoria, who offered testimony that strongly indicated that the deputies were involved in Virant's severe "third degree" beating. This detail of the Feb. 22, 1933 Pekin Daily Times front page shows a portion of that day's report on Spearman's testimony.

One of the prosecution’s most important witnesses in the trial of the deputies accused of beating Martin Virant to death was a jail inmate named Elizabeth Spearman, of Peoria, who offered testimony that strongly indicated that the deputies were involved in Virant’s severe “third degree” beating. This detail of the Feb. 22, 1933 Pekin Daily Times front page shows a portion of that day’s report on Spearman’s testimony.

Spearman testified that around 2:45 p.m. on Aug. 30, 1932, she saw Skinner and Fleming take Virant out of the jail. They brought him back about three hours later, just before the 6 p.m. supper. She then overheard Virant tell the deputies, “My side – him hurt.”

Spearman said Fleming responded, “Your side will hurt a lot worse if you don’t tell us something.”
Virant then said, “How I tell you anything if I know nothing. You take my fingerprints and make me murder man.” Skinner replied, “We’ll take your fingerprints or else.”

Then, according to Spearman, about 7 p.m. Fleming and Skinner again took Virant out of his cell. Spearman said she saw them take Virant around the corner of the jail and not to the courthouse (this was actually on Aug. 31, when Virant was taken to the Lew Nelan inquest, but it was Skinner and Hardy Garber who took Virant to the inquest, not Skinner and Fleming). The deputies brought him back to his cell around 9 p.m., after the courthouse lights had gone out.

At that time, Spearman heard Virant imploring the deputies, “Please get me a doctor and my sister in Peoria.”

Spearman testified, “He said that they had beaten him and he was going to die. Fleming said, ‘You are a long way from being dead – we’ll get you a doctor in the morning.’”

She also said that at one point Virant was “close enough to touch with my crutch,” and it was obvious that Virant was severely injured.

“He could hardly walk – had blood on his suit. The right side of his face and ear were bloody,” she said.

According to the Feb. 22, 1933 Pekin Daily Times, “Mrs. Spearman then related how she heard Virant moaning and groaning during the night. The next afternoon about 12 o’clock she said Deputy Fleming came upstairs. He went and looked out the window toward Hackler’s drug store; then went in where Virant was. After about five minutes he came out and went downstairs. She heard nothing, but saw him leave.

“About an hour later she saw Skinner about the cell. Still later she said she saw Skinner come out of the courthouse followed by two or three men and women. Skinner came across and reached the porch; then Fleming came hurrying after him and the two deputies started into the jail together. Skinner went on up to the cell, and Fleming hollered to him, ‘Bring that boy down here.’

“Skinner called back down, ‘He’s hung himself.’

“‘Hung himself!’ echoed Fleming.

“‘Yes.’”

Fleming then hastened upstairs, coming back down very soon after. Coroner A. E. Allen arrived on the scene shortly after that, Spearman said.

Next week: The prosecution painstakingly lays out the case.

#charles-skinner, #elizabeth-spearman, #ernest-fleming, #hardy-garber, #j-w-smoot, #judge-guy-williams, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #the-third-degree

The Third Degree: Chapter 13: The Virant trial begins in Petersburg

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 Thirteen

The Virant trial begins in Petersburg

In the month following the shocking death of Tazewell County Jail inmate Martin Virant on Sept. 1, 1932, readers of local newspapers saw a deluge of articles and sensational banner headlines announcing each new development in the story.

With the grand jury manslaughter indictments of three Tazewell County deputies in connection with Virant’s death, news coverage slowed down markedly, as the case began to wend its methodical way through the criminal justice system.

That initial flood of news coverage, however, was enough to convince Judge Joseph E. Daily that the accused deputies, Ernest L. Fleming, Charles O. Skinner and Frank Lee, would be unlikely to get a fair and impartial trial in Tazewell County. On Nov. 12, 1932, Daily ruled that the trial of the deputies would have to be moved to Menard County, where the case was expected to go before a judge in February of 1933.

The Pekin Daily Times, which had been following this case in minute detail, continued to provide meticulous coverage of the story even after the change of venue. Daily Times publisher F.F. McNaughton sent one of his reporters, young Miss Mildred Beardsley, to Petersburg to cover the trial for the newspaper. Throughout the course of the trial, Beardsley would offer very lengthy and extensive transcripts of witness testimony as well as occasionally filling in the background with local color and explanation of legal niceties.

The deputies were to be defended by a team of three talented, veteran attorneys: Jesse Black Jr. and William J. Reardon, who represented Fleming and Skinner, and J. M. Powers, who represented Lee. The prosecution team was made up of Menard County State’s Attorney J. W. Smoot, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Nathan T. Elliff, and East Peoria attorney Noble Y. Dowell, a friend of the Virant family brought on to assist Smoot and Elliff in what was for most of the attorneys probably (and for Elliff, certainly) the greatest case of their careers. Presiding over the trial would be Menard County Circuit Court Judge Guy Williams.

Although the deputies had already been indicted by a Tazewell County grand jury, due to the change of venue they were re-indicted in Menard County on Feb. 13, 1933. At that time, prosecutors agreed to simplify the case by dropping three of the eight counts of manslaughter that each of the deputies had faced in their Tazewell County bills of indictment.

Two days later, the prosecutors disclosed the list of witnesses they intended to call – 25 people, including medical experts, family members and acquaintances of Virant, and several individuals who were inmates of the Tazewell County Jail at the time their fellow inmate Virant was beaten to death.

This detail from the front page of the Feb. 15, 1933 Pekin Daily Times shows the list of witnesses whom the prosecution intended to call during the trial of the Tazewell County Sheriff's deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

This detail from the front page of the Feb. 15, 1933 Pekin Daily Times shows the list of witnesses whom the prosecution intended to call during the trial of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s deputies accused of beating jail inmate Martin Virant to death.

On Monday, Feb. 20, 1933, jury selection for the trial got under way – but not before a significant development that morning: the state agreed to drop all charges against Deputy Frank Lee.

“It is understood that Deputy Lee was away from Pekin during much of the time during which the events in controversy took place,” the Pekin Daily Times explained. Evidently the prosecution did not feel it would be possible to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Lee was at the jail during the times when Virant was beaten and hanged to make it appear that he had committed suicide.

Jury selection then proceeded throughout the rest of Monday and concluded on Tuesday, Feb. 21. The jurors chosen were: J. Kennedy Kincaid, farmer, Athens; Robert Fitzgerald, farmer, Sugar Grove; Donald Baugher, general store clerk, Fancy Prairie; Ted Buelter, repairman, Petersburg; Theodore Reinders, hardware merchant, Athens; Otis Harris, farmer, Athens; Roy Corkey, farmer, Petersburg; William Montgomery, farmer, Petersburg; John Gaddie, farmer, Greenview; Henry Market, farmer, Sand Ridge; James Bradley, farmer, Petersburg; and Charles Lockhart Jr., farmer, Greenview.

Over the next 10 days, the 12 jurors would be called upon to hear and consider a long litany of evidence and hours of testimony and arguments both for and against conviction.

After the jury had been sworn in Tuesday, the defense team won a critical victory. Black and Reardon moved that the testimony of Martin Virant at the Lew Nelan inquest be ruled to be inadmissible hearsay.

During his inquest testimony, Virant had shown and described his extensive injuries and had boldly accused Tazewell County deputies of nearly beating him to death. Virant had specifically named Skinner as one of the deputies who had tortured him.

Judge Williams granted the defense motion, instructing the prosecution, “You must NOT mention the testimony of Martin Virant at the Nelan inquest.”

The ruling made the state’s task more difficult, but Smoot and Elliff did not think it posed an insurmountable obstacle. Elliff immediately proceeded with his opening statements.

Next week: The state presents its case.

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