A Wrongful Conviction from 1946

In September, 1946, Leslie George Wakat was arrested by the Chicago police. He was held three days without being charged, while the police “investigated” a theft, but then released when family was able to hire a lawyer to challenge his detention. He was released, following the judge’s order, on September 24, later that same day he was arrested again. This time, he was held three more days, until finally he confessed to burglary. He was promptly indicted and tried.

At trial, he claimed that he only confessed after being beaten by the police. He also claimed the police drafted his confession and then beat him repeatedly until he signed it. In addition, he told the jury that at one point during his interrogation one of the officers questioning him threatened to “throw him out of a window.”

A cook county jail physician (who saw him the day he confessed) testified that when he saw Wakat, Wakat was suffering from “multiple bruises and large areas of hemorrhage under the skin, a fracture of the bone in the right arm, and injuries to the left leg and knee.” There was also evidence that Wakat had to be hospitalized for eleven days and then given further medical treatment for his injuries.

A police officer testified that Wakat suffered the injuries when he fell down some stairs at the police station. One police officer testified at trial that Wakat fell down the stairs after “tussling” with him, and that Wakat pulled him down the stairs too, injuring him.

The jury disregarded his claims, and he was convicted and sentenced to 10-20 years in jail. Eleven years later, lawyers filed a post-conviction petition on Wakat’s behalf and the judge hearing the petition ruled for Wakat. During that hearing, the judge also concluded that the police officer who testified Wakat pulled him down the stairs in a tussle had lied about the source of his injuries, and that Wakat had not caused his injuries.

The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed that decision, and ordered that Wakat be released. Wakat’s lawyer’s then filed a civil right claim on his behalf, and in 1957 a federal court jury awarded him $15,000 in damages (worth over $150,000 in 2022).

Two years later, the American Civil Liberties Union, Illinois Branch, published a booklet, Secret Detention by the Chicago Police: A Report by the American Civil Liberties Union (Free Press, 1959), a “report on the Chicago police practice of holding arrested persons secretly for long periods of time without bringing them promptly before a magistrate, as the law requires.” Wakat’s case was highlighted in the booklet as a rare instance when a person convicted on the basis of a confession coerced by torture succeeded in successfully challenging the conviction.

Sources: Illinois v. Wakat, 425 Ill. 610 (1953); Wakat v. Harlib, 253 F.2d 59 (7th Cir. 1958); Secret Detention by the Chicago Police: A Report by the American Civil Liberties Union (Free Press, 1959).



Writer. Formerly civil rights attorney. Currently professor. Working on new book about mental disability and criminal law in the 20th century.

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