BETWEEN THE LINES: A 68-year-old former Brooklyn resident died of a heart attack a few weeks ago in a New Jersey nursing home, not far from where he lived until his late teens. Though his life was undistinguished, his death prompted a New York Times obituary and op-ed, and 125 Google articles — negligible by today’s standards when compared to the glut of trivia on the rich and famous, yet more than merited for such an unexceptional life.
Few people probably ever heard of George Whitmore, but, due to a progression of regrettable circumstances, he almost certainly never realized the effect he had on the nation’s justice system or New York State’s death penalty law.
Whitmore was a grade-school dropout, whose life was disrupted when he was victimized by malicious detectives and an imperfect judicial system. It was justice run amok long before the New York City Police Department’s questionable and racially-motivated Stop & Frisk policy became the subject of debate. Even so, Whitmore was part of a pattern of veiled racism that existed — and, in some ways, still does — in the dark corners of law enforcement and the halls of the American legal system.
More than 40 years ago, Whitmore was stopped, interrogated and mistreated by Brooklyn detectives by using exceptionally questionably measures to coerce a suspect, too weak to resist, and eventually get him to sign 61 pages of false confessions. To make matters worse — much worse — he then got screwed, several times over, and snarled in a web of injustice by the system and the courts.
In April 1964, George Whitmore was 19 when police officers picked him up on a Brownsville street and took him to the 73rd Precinct for questioning, despite a distinct discrepancy from the a purse snatching victim’s initial description, under the pretext, he later said, to help police solve a crime. Nevertheless, without a lineup, the woman identified Whitmore, who was shorter and thinner than the suspect she described, and said he was the one who tried to rape her. It was never disclosed whether or not that latest accusation was suggested by police.
After nearly a day of interrogation and mistreatment without sleep, Whitmore not only confessed to attempted rape, but also to the murder of a Brooklyn woman five months earlier, and the “Career Girl Murders” in Manhattan that occurred the previous August. The killing of the two women, one of whom was from a moneyed family, had been the focus of the New York media and a public disturbed by the city’s rampant crime rate, for several weeks after it happened.
When Whitmore was indicted for the Brooklyn crimes, his court-appointed attorney told the judge that his client denied the confessions, maintained his innocence and claimed they were made after he was beaten by detectives during questioning. He was also indicted in Manhattan, even while a narcotics addict with a record of sexual assault and burglary was being questioned by police for the “Career Girl Murders.”
Before Whitmore’s Manhattan trial, his high-profile pro bono (no fee) attorney discovered that a piece of evidence that linked him to the murders was flawed. Even when the other suspect was indicted for the murders, the charges against Whitmore were not dropped, but District Attorney Frank Hogan recommended releasing him because “mistakes were made.” Since Whitmore still faced sentencing for one of the Brooklyn crimes and a trial for the other, his release was delayed.
Though the charges in the Manhattan case were finally dropped after the second man was eventually tried and convicted for the Manhattan crimes, Whitmore’s forced confessions, despite overwhelming inconclusive evidence, from the two Brooklyn crimes remained in effect.
For nine years, under the advice of his lawyers, Whitmore refused to take a plea deal. He endured a series of trials, retrials, overturned convictions and appeals. He was in and out of prison for almost three years, until his exoneration in 1973, when all charges against him were dismissed almost a decade after his arrest.
Whitmore’s case was cited as an example of police coercion when the Supreme Court issued its landmark 1966 ruling that established safeguards for suspects. By a five to four vote, the court ruled that when a defendant is taken into custody and accused of a crime, he must be advised of his constitutional rights, commonly referred to as the Miranda warnings. Any statements made prior to the notification may be ruled invalid unless they meet criteria that the police and the prosecutors must prove.
With glaringly invalid evidence in the Manhattan murder case, investigators very nearly put Whitmore on death row for a crime he did not commit. No formal charges were ever brought against the detectives who coerced Whitmore, and under cross examination, they repeatedly denied using any improper tactics. Yet, they never rationally explained how they were able to get Whitmore to supply a 61-page confession to a double murder he never committed.
Based primarily on the maze of mistakes in the Whitmore ordeal, in 1965 the New York State Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, except for the killing of law enforcement personnel. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the legislation into law shortly thereafter.
George Whitmore’s arrest and exploitation disrupted his life and sent it on a downward spiral, which led to a period of alcoholism after his exoneration. Though it derailed his life, that detour briefly turned him into a noteworthy, albeit unwilling, martyr whose troubles subsequently set a standard for the treatment of criminal suspects.
But for a police stop on a street in Brownsville, it is likely that George Whitmore would have gone through life an anonymous person. However, that incident turned his young life into, I daresay, a Kafkaesque series of mistreatment and injustice by callous police and careless prosecutors more intent on cracking a high-profile case than meticulously examining evidence to protect an individual’s rights. As a result, George Whitmore received more interest and unjustifiable notoriety than an innocent person deserves.
Nevertheless, his passing is a conspicuous reminder of the injustices that take place when neglectful law enforcement officers, motivated by a distorted sense of justice, harbor preconceived notions and use racial profiling to make arrests.
The impact of the Whitmore case has resonated over the decades. On the surface, some may interpret it as shoddy policing, but, at its core, the case is an indictment of the dilemma that continues to blight the American system of justice.
It just proves, once again, that — beyond a reasonable doubt — justice, at times, is blind.
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.
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