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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The Third Degree: Chapter 17: Clash of the medical experts

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 Seventeen

Clash of the medical experts

Key to the prosecution of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest Fleming and Charles Skinner for the beating death of jail inmate Martin Virant was the testimony of several medical experts, chief of whom were former Tazewell County Coroner Dr. Arthur E. Allen and Chicago criminologist Dr. William D. McNally.

During the trial of Fleming and Skinner in late February 1933, Allen and McNally gave hours of testimony in order to establish for the jury that after Virant died, his body exhibited extensive internal and external injuries – more than 30 different injuries, including a broken rib, Allen testified – that obviously were not the result of a hanging, and that Virant in fact had died of those injuries before he was hanged.

Other prosecution witnesses had testified that Virant had no visible injuries when he first was brought to the Tazewell County Jail, but the following day, at the inquest of murder victim Lew Nelan, Virant was seen to have several bruises and wounds about his head and neck. Allen corroborated their testimony, describing the injuries that he saw at the Nelan inquest, and telling the jury that Virant was “nervous and excited” and “in pain and distress,” and that he spoke in a voice that “was quite loud.”

On Thursday afternoon, Sept. 1, 1932, around 2:15 p.m., Allen entered Virant’s cell and saw his body hanging in the northeast corner of the cell. Virant’s feet were flat on the floor. Fleming was there, but neither he nor any other member of the jail staff had attempted to cut Virant down. Allen then did so.

“I took my pocket knife in my right hand and slipped my hand around his waist to ease the body to the floor,” Allen said. Virant was a short man and of slight build, and his body did not strike any object as Allen eased it to the floor. Virant had no pulse, but Allen began artificial respiration. “I knew I could get no response but I thought there might be some life left.”

“The body was warm and I heard Deputy Sheriff Fleming say, ‘He couldn’t have been hanging very long.’”

Most troubling, Virant’s body showed none of the usual signs of a hanging death. “Dr. Allen told that he had occasion to observe the body of the deceased closely while performing artificial respiration and that the face had the natural death pallor. The face showed evidence of there being no circulation. He said that the tongue was not swollen neither was there a collection of fluid in the man’s mouth,” the Daily Times reported. “The eyes were not protruding but were partly closed,” Allen testified.

If Virant had died of hanging, Allen said, his body should have had a dark discoloration of the face from the neck up to the face and scalp, a dark discoloration of the lips and tongue, and a swollen and protruding tongue. There could be no doubt, then, that Virant had been hanged after he had lost all blood circulation to his head.

Pekin physicians L. F. Teter and L. R. Clary, who conducted two autopsies on Virant’s body at Allen’s direction, also provided testimony that showed Virant was dead before he was hanged. In particular, they found that Virant had suffered a brain injury due to a concussion. McNally also reiterated his findings at great length, assuring the jury that Virant could not have died of hanging, but rather had died as the result of a vicious beating.

The defense attorneys labored valiantly to rebut the state’s expert testimony, and hostility was at times evident between Allen and Pekin attorney Jesse Black as he persisted in his vain attempts to trip Allen up.

The defense also countered the prosecution’s expert testimony with medical experts of its own, Dr. C. G. Farnum of Peoria, Dr. T. M. Scott of Peterburg, and Dr. R. B. H. Gradwohl of St. Louis, who sharply contradicted key points of the conclusions of Allen, Teter, Clary and McNally.

In particular, Gradwohl, a coroner who had investigated numerous suicidal hangings and had even personally conducted six legal hangings, bluntly rejected the results of McNally’s investigation as “faulty observation.”

According to the state’s witnesses and experts, Virant had been brutally beaten while in custody at the jail, and finally had succumbed to a kind of “shock” resulting from the severity of his wounds.

But, in his testimony on March 1, 1933, Farnum said that Virant could not have been in “shock,” because the autopsy results as well as witnesses at the jail had established that Virant had eaten a meal within an hour of his death. Virant also allegedly attempted to flee when he was taken from the jail to the Nelan inquest. A man suffering from shock could not have done either of those things.

On that point, Farnum was correct. Virant did not die of shock. Based on the autopsies and the known circumstances of Virant’s death, more likely the immediate cause of his death was the brain injury he suffered when the deputies tortured him.

Farnum and Gradwohl also told the jury that embalming alters a dead body in ways that could affect an autopsy’s findings. This was potentially important, because both of the autopsies conducted by Teter and Clary, as well as McNally’s examinations, took place after Virant had been embalmed. Farnum implied that even the apparent evidence of Virant’s concussion and bleeding in his brain could have been caused by the embalming.

Finally, Farnum and Gradwohl contradicted the conclusion of the state’s experts that Virant’s bruises had been inflicted prior to his death. They explained that if a body is injured just before death or very soon after death (but before blood circulation has been lost), bruising can result. This would form an important part of the defense’s alternate scenario of how Virant died and why his body appeared to have been horrifically beaten.

However, none of the defense’s experts attempted to counter the evidence that Virant showed none of the usual signs of a hanging death. The defense attorneys would attempt to destroy the credibility of that evidence through other means.

Next week: The defense pleads its case.

Defense attorneys in the Martin Virant jail death trial in Feb.-March 1933 called upon several medical experts who disputed the verdict of the coroner's inquest jury and the prosecutions experts who said Virant was dead before he was hanged.

Defense attorneys in the Martin Virant jail death trial in Feb.-March 1933 called upon several medical experts who disputed the verdict of the coroner’s inquest jury and the prosecutions experts who said Virant was dead before he was hanged.

#c-g-farnum, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #dr-william-d-mcnally, #ernest-fleming, #jesse-black, #l-f-teter, #l-r-clary, #lew-nelan, #martin-virant, #r-b-h-gradwohl, #t-m-scott, #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.

#charles-skinner, #ernest-fleming, #frank-lee, #j-m-powers, #j-w-smoot, #jesse-black, #judge-guy-williams, #judge-joseph-e-daily, #martin-virant, #mildred-beardsley, #nathan-t-elliff, #noble-y-dowell, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon

The Third Degree: Chapter 12: The Virant manslaughter trial is moved

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 Twelve

The Virant manslaughter trial is moved

Election Day in 1932 was historic, dealing an overwhelming victory to the Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his party, and ushering in the era of “the New Deal” which was to bring about a revolution in the scope and power of the federal government and its relationship with the American people.

But the outcome of the national election also had an immediate effect on local affairs in Tazewell County, where Republican office holders were swept out by the Democratic tidal wave. That included two incumbents: the coroner, Dr. A. E. Allen, and the state’s attorney, Louis P. Dunkelberg, both of whom had sought a third term in office.

Dunkelberg was ousted by Nathan T. Elliff, a young and comparatively inexperienced Pekin attorney. As Elliff prepared to assume his duties, the Pekin Daily Times (Dec. 3, 1932) offered a brief farewell tribute to Dunkelberg, and welcomed Elliff as one who “has already shown much ability in his chosen profession. Thruout the county he is well favorably known. The public has confidence in him and knows that the office of states attorney will be in good hands and that faithful and conscientious service will be rendered . . . .”

Despite the Daily Times’ optimism, Dunkelberg’s replacement by someone much less experienced did not necessarily bode well for the prosecution of Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputies Ernest L. Fleming, Charles O. Skinner and Frank Lee, who had been indicted for manslaughter in the beating death of jail inmate Martin Virant. Unsurprisingly, Elliff’s fellow Democrats Fleming, Skinner and Lee had quietly worked for Dunkelberg’s defeat.

Meanwhile the deputies’ boss, Sheriff James J. Crosby, was in a fight for his life – not his political life, however, for he was only in the middle of his four-year term and therefore not up for re-election, but his very life. Stricken down by a severe heart attack two days before Election Day, Crosby was moved to Methodist Hospital in Peoria on Nov. 7.

In the follow week, the Pekin Daily Times published almost daily updates on Sheriff Crosby’s health. His condition was very grave, and at one point it was feared that his death was very near, but he rebounded and eventually was able to resume his duties.

While Crosby was hospitalized and at death’s door, the sister of Martin Virant, Agnes Franko, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff on Thursday, Nov. 10. Franko sought $10,000 in damages, a hefty sum in those days.

Then on Saturday, Nov. 12, Circuit Court Judge Joseph E. Daily issued his ruling on the motion seeking a change of venue for the manslaughter trial of Fleming, Skinner and Lee. Their attorneys, Jesse Black and William J. Reardon, had argued that the unusual publicity given to this case by local newspapers, especially the Pekin Daily Times, had made it impossible for their clients to obtain a fair trial in Tazewell County.

In defense of its news coverage, on Nov. 2 Daily Times publisher F.F. McNaughton had reprinted an editorial from the Peoria Transcript, which declared that if the deputies are guilty of killing Virant, local newspapers “will be glad to endure criticism for having condemned the officers and the system which led to his death.

“The deputies are entitled to fair trials. They were officers of the law, and their task was not easy. Nevertheless, this newspaper, at least, is proud that it has been vigilant in behalf of the public interest and protestant in the face of the possibility of official cruelty.”

Even so, Judge Daily agreed with attorneys Black and Reardon, announcing that the trial would be moved to Petersburg, county seat of Menard County.

“Judge Daily said that he had considered the case very carefully, taking the affidavits which had been presented by counsel for both the state and the defense to his home and going over them leisurely and with care and he was of the opinion that the defendants had established their fear that they might not get a fair and impartial trial in this county.

“In considering what county the case should be sent to he had made inquiry and investigation in to the circulation of Peoria, Bloomington and Pekin papers in the county and he had found the circulation very small in Menard county. One Peoria paper has 13 subscribers in the county and another has but two, the court learned.”

The trial was expected to be delayed until February of 1933, “as the next term of circuit court convenes there the first Monday in that month,” the Daily Times reported on the front page of its edition of Nov. 26, 1932.

Next week: The Virant trial begins in Petersburg.

#agnes-franko, #charles-skinner, #coroner-arthur-e-allen, #ernest-fleming, #f-f-mcnaughton, #frank-lee, #jesse-black, #judge-joseph-e-daily, #louis-dunkelberg, #martin-virant, #nathan-t-elliff, #sheriff-james-j-crosby, #the-third-degree, #william-reardon