A Wrongful Conviction from 1885

In Chicago, many wrongful convictions rest on confessions that were coerced by violence, threats, or other pressures. But some convictions that seem dubious were obtained through confessions that were questionable for other reasons. A case in point took place in 1885.

May 1 that year, the body of a dead man was found in a trunk that had been shipped from Chicago to Pittsburgh. After a few days, the body in the trunk was identified as Filippo Caruso, a fruit peddler in Chicago. Not quite two weeks later, five men–Antonio Mercurio, Agostino Geraldi, Giovanni Azari, Ignazio Bova, and Ignazio Silvestre–had been arrested and charged with the murder. By the end of June, three of the five, Geraldi, Azari, and Silvestre, had been found guilty of the murder and were sentenced to be hanged. (The other two, Bova and Mercurio, were both acquitted). None of the three who were found guilty could afford to appeal, so nothing stood in the way of their executions. On November 14, 1885, the three men were hanged in front of a crowd of several hundred Chicagoans who had gathered in the courtyard of the jail to watch.

There are several reasons to doubt their guilt. A couple of the witnesses the state called to prove its case could only tie the men to buying a trunk and some cord. While in the abstract, those actions might seem suspicious, many Chicagoans were doing exactly the same thing in the days before May 1, 1885 because May 1 was “moving day,” the day all rental leases in the city ended and Chicagoans moved.

Nor did it help that several of the state’s other witnesses admitted that they could not tell one Italian from another. And two of the defense attorneys raised serious questions about whether a body as decayed as Caruso’s was when the trunk he was in was opened in Pittsburgh could have been killed on the timeline the state’s case relied on.

But the biggest problem was the confessions the state offered to prove its case. All five had been in custody for at least a week when the first confessions were made. None of the men had been able to see lawyers, or friends, during that period. In later years, both The Illinois and United States Supreme Courts held that confessions that followed extended periods of incommunicado interrogation were unconstitutional.

But here, there’s an even more troubling problem: the confessions were made by five men, none of whom spoke English, all of whom were Sicilian and spoke Sicilian, which at least one Italian speaker the police department called in to translate for them admitted was “very hard to understand.” In fact, there is much reason to doubt that the police department had anyone who understood the defendants well enough to interrogate them or translate their confessions.

At trial, two of the defense attorneys tried to raise this issue, one tried to bring in an expert witness to testify on the differences between the Italian spoken by Chicago’s many immigrants from Genoa an the Sicilian spoken by the men on trial. But the trial judge, Kirk Hawes, a man with little patience for what he often dismissed as “legalisms” would not allow the defense to offer that evidence.

And so, there is reason to doubt the confessions offered into evidence at trial, a doubt that at least suggests that the three men were wrongfully convicted based on unreliable confessions.



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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