The many arrests and criminal prosecutions of George Whitmore Jr., a black man who was just 19 years-old when he was railroaded for a series of violent crimes against three white women back in 1963, coincided with Martin Luther King Jr.’s now-famous March on Washington – 50 years ago last month.
You undoubtedly know about the March on Washington. However, you’ve probably never heard about Whitmore, even though the decade-long legal odyssey ultimately became a classic example of actions criminal investigators should avoid in questioning. Unfolding the same year as the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, which ultimately guaranteed legal defense for those facing felony crimes, Whitmore’s persecution was even cited in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona, ultimately mandating the clear advisement of legal rights – including the one to remain silent – prior to police questioning.
Our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers know that these legal protections are critical to those facing loss of life and freedom due to accusations of criminal misconduct. However, they don’t entirely shield you from the risk of a shoddy investigation or questionable interrogation tactics. That’s why availing yourself of the right to remain silent until you’ve had a chance to confer with your defense attorney remains so critically important.
In Whitemore’s case, he was first arrested for suspicion of raping a Brooklyn woman back in 1963. It was several months after the brutal “Career Girl Murders” of two wealthy 20-something female roommates in Manhattan. The case had been unsolved until then. When Whitmore was arrested for the rape (of which he was much later exonerated), a photograph of a white woman was found in his wallet. It was mistakenly identified as one of the slain Manhattan women. On this basis, he was questioned and ultimately bullied into a confession of not only the rape and two murders, but also of a third murder.
The police were quick to proclaim that the crimes had been solved and the city could rest easy. But there were major problems in the case from the very start.
First, there was the whole matter with the wallet photograph being later identified as a different person entirely. It was a high school classmate of the defendant.
What’s more, at the time of the murders, numerous witnesses placed Whitmore in New Jersey, watching the March on Washington on television with a large group of others.
Further, the detective who had questioned him was notorious for his “blunt” interrogation tactics. In reading the transcripts, one can see that the confessions were clearly coached.
For example, in asking about the alleged rape, the detective asked what the victim was doing. Whitmore responded she was struggling. The detective asks where he took her. Whitmore responds, “Into a house.” The detective then prompts, “Into a what?” Then Whitmore replies, “An alley.” The detective further presses, “An alley or a basement?” “A basement,” Whitmore responds.
It didn’t take prosecutors in Manhattan long to figure out that they likely had the wrong suspect. But they didn’t tell Whitmore this and they didn’t drop the charges right away either.
He went on to face trial in the rape, for which he was initially convicted, despite scant evidence. It was later revealed that every juror on the panel was aware of the allegations against him in the so-called Career Girl Murders. They revealed this knowledge played a significant role in his ultimate conviction.
It wasn’t until 1965 that another man was arrested for the Career Girl murders. Then his rape conviction was overturned. He then went on trial for the murder of the third woman. That case ultimately ended in a mistrial. His indictment on that case wouldn’t be dismissed until the following year.
Prosecutors then announced they would retry him for the rape.
It dragged until until 1973, when after numerous trials, convictions, overturned convictions and appeals, he was finally cleared of any wrongdoing.
The strong undercurrent of racism throughout the whole process can’t be denied. But the case also shows how determined police and prosecutors can be once they’ve latched onto a suspect, no matter how seemingly weak the evidence.
You deserve representation from someone who will fight just as hard for you.