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George Lettrich


At 5:00 A.M. on August 13, 1950, on a roadside at the western edge of Cook County, Illinois, George Lettrich Jr. “reenacted” the murder of 10-year-old Roberta Rinearson – a crime to which he had confessed less than two hours earlier.
 
Roberta Rinearson, who lived with her grandmother in Brookfield, Illinois, had disappeared eighteen months earlier, on December 17, 1948, after boarding a bus to nearby LaGrange to see a movie. She did not arrive at the theater. Her body was found the next morning just inside Cook County, near the DuPage County line. An autopsy determined that she had been raped. Her panties bad been stuffed into her mouth, but the cause of death was “external violence that was applied to the neck” – in a word, strangulation. There were bruises on her body, indicating that she had been punched or kicked. Time of death, based on an analysis of her stomach contents, was between 6:00 and 7:15 P.M. on December 17.
 
On December 22, 31-year-old Herlindo Perez Arias told Dr. William H. Haines, director of the Cook County Behavior Clinic, that he had murdered Rinearson. Arias had been arrested the previous day driving a stolen car in Indiana, and he had been intoxicated at the time of his arrest. He had agreed to be moved to Cook County for examination at the Behavior Clinic under the auspices of the Criminal Court, where he was admitted with a diagnosis of “alcohol psychosis.”
 
Dr. Haines did not ask Aries details of the crime, focusing instead on why he had committed it. According to Haines’s notes on the conversation, Arias said he had been smoking marijuana and drinking heavily before the crime. Asked why he raped and killed the child, he answered, “Just got the urge, I guess.” Following the examination, Haines arranged for Arias’s admission to Manteno State Hospital. Considering himself bound by doctor-patient confidentiality, however, Haines did not report Arias’s statement to authorities. Nine days later, on New Year’s Eve, Arias committed suicide at Manteno, but Haines nonetheless remained silent.
 
In the ensuing seventeen months, some 3,000 men – mostly known or suspected sex offenders – were questioned about the crime. There was no viable suspect, however, until August 10, 1950, when two girls, ages ten and twelve, spotted George Lettrich Jr. waiting at a bus stop and accused him of having sexually molested them two weeks earlier in a forest preserve near Lyons, Illinois. This forest preserve was not far from the scene of the Rinearson murder. Lettrich was a 36-year-old truck driver who lived with his wife and thirteen-year-old son in Cicero, Illinois. He had no criminal record.
 
Lettrich was arrested immediately and, over the next sixty hours, interrogated intermittently, with breaks of no more than a few minutes at a time, by Brookfield, Lyons, and Chicago police officers and by Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney John S. Boyle. For the first twenty-four hours, Lettrich steadfastly insisted that he had had nothing to do with either the molestations or the murder. Then, on August 11, he orally confessed to the molestations, while continuing to deny the murder. Finally, at 3:15 A.M. on August 13, after eight uninterrupted hours of “sweating” by Chicago police, he signed a forty-page statement admitting to the Rinearson murder. Lettrich insisted the confession had not been voluntary, but was instead the result of physical violence, duress, and unlawful confinement. Although the murder confession was dubious – it was wrong about such key details as how the child died, the manner in which she had been sexually assaulted, and what she was wearing – prosecutors obtained indictments charging Lettrich with both the murder and the molestations.
 
On April 2, 1951, after a three-hour trial, an Illinois criminal court jury found Lettrich guilty of the molestations based on his confession and the victims’ identification testimony. He was sentenced to one to ten years in prison. The murder case, however, would prove more problematic for the prosecution. Before the case came to trial on October 14, 1951, Dr. Haines came forward to report Arias’s confession and Lettrich’s lawyers located seven credible, disinterested alibi witnesses who placed him in Chicago at the time of Rinearson’s death.
 
However, the trial judge, Wilbert F. Crowley, found that Dr. Haines’s testimony was hearsay and therefore inadmissible. Lettrich’s alibi testimony was presented, without objection from prosecutors, who challenged neither its accuracy nor its truthfulness. The jury, however, disregarded the alibi in the face of Lettrich’s confession and a stirring closing statement by Assistant State’s Attorney George J. Cotsirilos. “You have here the most heinous, despicable, atrocious type of crime that could be committed on any man, woman, or child, and it is committed on the weakest of all three, or a child,” said Cotsirilos. “The nature of the crime is transferred to the defendant, and he, too, becomes despicable. He picks out this little child to satisfy his lusts and his passions – this little child Roberta, who was defenseless. That is what you have to sit in judgment on, and the more serious the crime, the more eyes are focused upon the outcome of the trial for such a crime.”
 
The jury deliberated only an hour and fourteen minutes before returning a guilty verdict, and Crowley immediately sentenced Lettrich to death in the electric chair. The execution was scheduled for January 19, 1952, but four days before that date, the Illinois Supreme Court granted a stay to give Lettrich’s lawyers, Assistant Cook County Public Defenders Robert E. Harrington and lrwin D. Bloch, time to appeal.
 
While the appeal was pending, the Illinois Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Lettrich parole in the molestation case. On September 18, 1952, the Supreme Court reversed the murder conviction, branding Cotsirilos’s closing remarks “inflammatory” and holding, first, that there was “not a scintilla of evidence,” other than Lettrich’s uncorroborated confession, linking him to the crime and, second, that Crowley had erred in rejecting Dr. Haines’s testimony about the Arias confession. Regarding the latter, said the court, “The general rule, supported by the great weight of authority, is that extrajudicial declarations of a third party, not made under oath, that he committed the crime, are purely hearsay, and even though they are declarations against interest, are inadmissible…The rule is sound and should not be departed from except in cases where it obvious that justice demands a departure. But it would be absurd, and shocking in all sense of justice, to indiscriminately apply such a rule to prevent one accused of a crime from showing that another person was the real culprit merely because that other person was deceased, insane, or outside the jurisdiction of the court.”
 
In view of the Supreme Court decision, State’s Attorney John Gutknecht dropped all charges against Lettrich on April 20, 1953, and Lettrich was released after 953 days behind bars for the crime. He received no compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.
 
– Researched by Billy Warden
State:IL
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1948
Convicted:1951
Exonerated:1953
Sentence:Death
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:33
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Official Misconduct