Today, news accounts about wrongful convictions or police abuse often take care to (some would say take glee in) report on whether the victim of either had a history of arrests or convictions. Call it the “he’s no angel” approach.
But nothing in the constitution, nor its amendments, contains an exemption for “bad guys.” And once, courts recognized that fact.
In 1929, Patrick Joyce, a twenty-six-year-old white man known, as one paper explained, to the police as a hoodlum, was arrested and charged with killing a police officer after a routine traffic stop. At trial, the state offered the testimony of several women who were in a car driven by Joyce’s friend, all of whom said that after Joyce’s friend was arrested for going through a red light, Joyce left the car saying he would “blow that cop’s brains out.” None of those witnesses saw Joyce shoot the police officer, but another witness testified that he saw Joyce walk up to the officer and shoot him.
The state also offered the confession it claimed Joyce made to the police after his arrest, in which Joyce admitted he fired the fatal shots.
Joyce testified in his own defense, insisting that a third man who had also been in the car when it was stopped by the officer fired the shots that killed the policeman. (That man had never been arrested.)
Joyce also claimed, as had so many others arrested in Chicago in the 1920s, that he only confessed because he had been beaten by the police. He also called four men who had been in the jail when he was taken there after his arrest. All four testified that he was bruised when he arrived at the jail. Although the state offered no evidence that contradicted Joyce’s claim he was beaten before he confessed, both the judge and then the jury disregarded Joyce’s claims of abuse. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
While in prison, Joyce was implicated in an elaborate escape plot in 1939. That plot received extensive newspaper coverage and played a role when he was denied parole in 1949.
But then, in 1954, in a post conviction hearing petition, Judge Thomas Kluczynski ruled that in a case where the state did not offer ANY evidence that challenged a defendant’s claim he was beaten into confessing, the trial judge should not have admitted Joyce’s confession into evidence.
Kluczynski had originally granted Joyce’s petition for another reason, concluding that a jury instruction given at his trial had been wrong. But the Supreme Court of Illinois reversed, and told Kluczynski to look instead at Joyce’s claim he was tortured into confessing. Kluczynski did and reversed his conviction, a quarter century later.