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

With this post to our Local History Room weblog, we continue our series on a pair of sensational deaths that occurred in Pekin, Illinois, during the Prohibition Era. The Local History Room columns in this series, entitled “The Third Degree,” originally ran in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times from Sept. 15, 2012, to March 2, 2013.

THE THIRD DEGREE

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Chapter Fifteen

The prosecution painstakingly lays out the case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: The courtroom theatrics of Attorney Black.

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The Third Degree: Chapter 4: A hanging in Cell 11 — Crime and cover-up at the county jail

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 Four

A hanging in Cell 11

Crime and cover-up at the county jail

During the Aug. 31, 1932 inquest into the death of Lewis P. Nelan, witness Martin Virant of East Peoria shocked those in attendance with bold accusations that he had been severely beaten by sheriff’s deputies who refused to believe his protestations that he knew nothing of the fight that led to Nelan’s death.

Virant had even shown some of his injuries to the inquest jury. He wanted to continue testifying about the torture he had endured, but because Virant knew nothing of Nelan’s murder, Tazewell County Coroner A. E. Allen sent him back to the county jail, expecting Sheriff J. J. Crosby to release him.

The Sept. 1, 1932 Pekin Daily Times reported, “Virnt (sic) had a bruise on the forehead, there was a little dry blood in the left eyebrow, his right ear was swollen and there was blood about the neck of his shirt. He told the jury he believed some of his ribs had been broken. Whether these injuries were received as Virnt declares, or at some other place and in some other manner, is a question . . . That Virnt had been beaten or in any way abused or mistreated while he had been in custody of the officers for questioning, is vehemently denied by Sheriff Crosby and all members of his force.”

Law enforcement use of torture and violence in order to extract confessions from suspects, or useful information from witnesses who were thought to be less than cooperative, was then an accepted (or at least tolerated) practice commonly known by the euphemism “the third degree.”

Two other witnesses at the Nelan inquest who were not involved in Nelan’s murder, George Genseal and Burton Heller, were released from the Tazewell County Jail on Thursday, Sept. 1. Learning of Virant’s plight, his brother-in-law secured the services of Peoria attorney Victor Michael, who came to Pekin Thursday afternoon and told Crosby that if he did not release Virant he would initiate habeas corpus proceedings. “It was also reported that if Virnt’s release is secured he will be taken before physicians for examination and the X-rays will be taken of his injuries,” the Pekin Daily Times reports.

Crosby granted Michael’s demand and, while Michael and Virant’s relatives waited outside the jail, sent Deputy Charles O. Skinner – whom Virant had named as one of his torturers during his testimony the night before – to let Virant out of jail.

As reported in the Sept. 17, 1932 Peoria Journal, according to Genseal, Skinner came into the jail around 2 p.m., went to the upper cell block and called, “Martin.” Genseal heard no reply, and then heard Skinner say, “The —- has hanged himself.”

Chief Deputy Ernest L. Fleming telephoned Coroner Allen and told him Virant had hanged himself. Allen rushed to the jail. Fleming and Skinner led Allen to Virant’s cell, where Allen found Virant hanging by his belt from the top bar of the cell. Allen cut Virant down and his body was taken into the corridor and resuscitation was attempted without success.

Faced with this sudden and extremely shocking turn of events, the Pekin Daily Times delayed its printing and hastily reworked its Sept. 1 front page so it could run a story along with its Nelan inquest story. The Times announced “VIRNT HANGS SELF IN COUNTY JAIL” – but by the time most Daily Times subscribers got to read those words, investigators were already casting doubt on the sheriff’s department’s account of how Virant had died.

Immediately noticing that Virant’s body displayed none of the signs of a hanging death, and with the memory of Virant’s testimony and injuries from the night before till fresh in his mind, Allen ordered an autopsy by Pekin physicians L. F. Teter and L. R. Clary. The autopsy, conducted Thursday night at Kuecks Funeral Home, found the following, according to the Sept. 17 Peoria Journal:

“Cut over left eye: Extensive evidence of external injuries to the head, chest and body. Cut over left eyebrow, eye badly discolored; internal hemorrhage in rear portion of left eye. Severe bruises back of right ear, extending down the neck. Bruises on back and ribs: one fractured rib on right side. Broken cartilage in right ear. Left eye bruised and discolored. Bruises on top of head. Right side of brain congested, causing concussion. Both shins badly bruised and discolored. Numerous bruises on various portions of the body.”

Virant’s funeral was set for 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4, at Keucks Funeral Home, to be followed by burial in Parkview Cemetery in Peoria. The funeral rites took place as planned, but Allen delayed the burial plans so he could conduct further investigation. At the visitation, Virant’s sister Agnes Franko of Peoria broke down and screamed that her brother “did not hang himself, he was killed!”

On Saturday night, Sept. 3, Allen phoned Chicago criminologist Dr. William D. McNally and explained what Teter and Clary had found in their autopsy. McNally replied, “If the cartilage of Virant’s neck is as described, Virant did not die from hanging.”

That same night, Allen and Teter conducted a second autopsy and concluded that Virant’s death was not due to hanging but to “shock and external violent injuries,” according to the Peoria Journal. McNally also came from Chicago to Pekin on Sept. 5 and did his own thorough examination of Virant’s body, whereupon he concluded: “Martin Virant did not die of strangulation by his own hand. He was terrifically beaten. My opinion is that he died of shock and external violent injuries.”

The Journal reported, “Many witnesses stated that they saw Virant only a few minutes before he surrendered himself to Deputies C. O. Skinner and Hardy Garber in East Peoria on Tuesday afternoon, [Aug. 30], and that he bore no marks of injury.”

Considering the results of the Nelan inquest, Tazewell County State’s Attorney Louis P. Dunkelberg now prepared to prosecute John Petje, Edward Hufeld and Frank Keayes Jr. for the murder of Lewis Nelan.

Also, on Monday afternoon, Sept. 5, Dunkelberg swore out a warrant for the arrest of Deputy Skinner for the murder of Martin Virant.

Next week: Deputy Skinner issues denials.

This front page article in the 6 Sept. 1932 Pekin Daily Times announced the arrival of expert criminologist Dr. William D. McNally of Chicago to examine the body of Martin Virant, found hanging in his Tazewell County Jail cell on 1 Sept. 1932. McNally concluded that Virant was already dead before his body was hanged in the cell.

This front page article in the 6 Sept. 1932 Pekin Daily Times announced the arrival of expert criminologist Dr. William D. McNally of Chicago to examine the body of Martin Virant, found hanging in his Tazewell County Jail cell on 1 Sept. 1932. McNally concluded that Virant was already dead before his body was hanged in the cell.

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