A Wrongful Conviction from 1936 (another)

In 1959, Judge William Campbell did something no one with any authority had done in 23 years: He believed Emil Reck’s claim he had been tortured into confessing to a murder in 1936. That year, Reck and three other white teens were convicted of murdering a Chicago pediatrician. At his trial, Reck testified that he’d been punched, hanged from a door by his wrists, slapped, and slammed into a wall by officers as they interrogated him for four days about the murder.

His co-defendants corroborated his testimony, and his lawyers presented evidence that on the third day Reck was in custody he had to be rushed to the hospital because he began vomiting blood during an interrogation. Reck spent the night sedated in a hospital bed, but did tell two physicians who examined with him that the police had roughed him up while he was in custody.

At trial, the police denied they harmed Reck and neither the trial judge nor the jury credited his claims. Reck was found guilty and sentenced to 199 years in prison.

Over the next two decades lawyers tried to challenge his conviction. But it was not until his case finally reached Judge Campbell on a petition for habeas corpus that a judge listened to Reck’s complaint.

But even though he believed Reck has been tortured, Judge Campbell refused to reverse Reck’s conviction. He decided that Reck, who had been diagnosed as “feebleminded” as a school boy, posed too great a danger to society to set him free. “I find,” he wrote “from the record, that the release of Reck from prison, may result in a danger to society due to his mental condition as revealed in the record and which 22 years in prison cannot have improved.”

Reck was not freed until two years later, when the Supreme Court ruled his conviction violated the constitution. Notwithstanding Judge Campbell’s fears, there is no evidence Emil Reck harmed anyone or broke any laws in that years that followed his release from prison.

[This material is based on a book I am writing on Reck’s case and the 20th century’s long war on crime.]



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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