The 1948 film noir classic Call Northside 777 starring James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb, and Richard Conte was based on the case of Joseph W. Majczek, who was convicted in 1933 of the murder of a Chicago police officer and exonerated in 1945 as a result of a newspaper crusade. A co-defendant, Theodore Marcinkiewicz, languished in prison another five years, until he, too, was exonerated.
Patrolman William D. Lundy was shot to death the afternoon of December 9, 1932, while intervening in the attempted robbery of a speakeasy on South Ashland Avenue by two armed men. As Lundy lay dying, the men fled empty-handed in a getaway car driven by a third man.
There is political pressure to solve every murder of a police officer, but it was particularly intense in this case. There had been five other murders in Chicago the same week – all unsolved – and the Century of Progress Exposition, which business leaders envisioned as a pivotal event in the city’s recovery from the Depression, was scheduled to open in just five months.
Vera Walush, operator of the speakeasy where the crime occurred, initially told police she had no idea who the killers were. After several hours of interrogation, however, she said one them might have been a man she knew only by his first name – Ted. When police learned that Theodore Marcinkiewicz lived in the neighborhood, he became the prime suspect. Told by friends that the police were looking for him, Marcinkiewicz hid at the home of his friend, Joseph Majczek.
Several days later, police arrested a neighborhood bootlegger with a case of whisky in his car. In exchange for not being charged, the bootlegger revealed that Marcinkiewicz had been staying at Majczek’s apartment. When the police did not find Marcinkiewicz, they arrested Majczek. On December 23, Walush identified him in a lineup. When Marcinkiewicz surrendered a month later, Walush identified him as the second man involved in the shooting. The following November, Majczek and Marcinkiewicz were convicted by a Cook County Criminal Court jury and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. The Illinois Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the convictions in 1935.
It was not until nine years later that the events leading to Majczek’s and Marcinkiewicz’s exoneration began to unfold – the first being the appearance of a classified ad in the Chicago Times of October 10, 1944. The following ad had been placed by Majczek’s mother: “$5,000 reward for killers of Officer Lundy on Dec. 9, 1932. Call Gro. 1758, 12-7 p.m.”
A young reporter noticed the ad and called it to the attention of Karin Walsh, the Times city editor. Walsh assigned James McGuire, a veteran police reporter, to find out who had placed the ad and why. From clippings in the newspaper’s morgue, McGuire learned that Lundy had been gunned down on the date stated and that Majczek, 24, and Marcinkiewicz, 25, had been convicted the following year. Since it was too early to call the number in the ad, McGuire had time to check court files, from which he learned that Majczek’s conviction had rested solely, and Marcinkiewic’s primarily, on the testimony of Walush. The defendants had presented an alibi defense, but to no avail.
When McGuire called the number in the ad in the early afternoon, a woman answered. In heavily accented English, she identified herself as Tillie Majczck. McGuire elicited that she had scrubbed floors on her hands and knees, six nights a week for more than a decade, at the downtown offices of Commonwealth Edison Company to save the $5,000 she was offering as a reward for information she prayed would clear her son.
Like many reporters of the era, McGuire did not write stories himself. That was left to a rewrite bank, a group of facile writers who began work in the afternoon. One such writer was John J. McPhaul, who happened to arrive at work early that Tuesday afternoon. Walsh called him over to the city desk, telling him, “Mac’s got a nice little human interest story.” As McPhaul would recount in a memoir years later, “I wrote a story making the sixty-year-old scrubwoman the heroine, tossed in a couple of lines from Kipling’s ‘Mother o’ Mine,’ and figured that was that.” That, however, was not that.
McGuire suspected something was amiss in the case. It was strange that Majczek and Marcinkiewicz had not received the veritably automatic sentence for murder of a policeman: death in the electric chair. Sparing their lives could well be an indication that the trial judge, Charles P. Molthrop, had harbored doubt of their guilt.
On October 11, the day after the jointly bylined story appeared, McPhaul read a thirty-page statement written by Majczek in prison. Had McPhaul not been aware of McGuire’s suspicion, he might have disregarded Majczek’s assertion that, after the verdict, Molthrop had promised him a new trial, calling the case a miscarriage of justice. Majczek’s statement added that there had been a witness to the conversation – James Zagata, a coal truck driver who, having just made a delivery to the Walush speakeasy, had witnessed the crime and knew that the wrong men had been convicted.
As preposterous as it seemed that a judge would tell a convicted killer any such thing, McGuire and McPhaul thought they should investigate further. Molthrop could not be asked – he had been unceremoniously dropped from the Democratic ticket the year after the trial, ending his judicial career, and had died in 1935. However, McGuire tracked down Zagata, still employed as a coal truck driver. Zagata corroborated Majczek’s account of what Molthrop had said.
Continuing to investigate, McGuire also corroborated another key point of Majczek’s written account. Majczek claimed that he had been in two lineups viewed by Walush on the day of his arrest, December 22, 1932, and both times she had stated unequivocally that he was not one of the killers. To conceal that exculpatory fact, according to Majczek’s account, the police had prepared a false report stating that he had been arrested on December 23, the day Walush indeed had identified him. Searching through records at a police warehouse, McGuire found the original arrest report, which showed that he, in fact, had been arrested on December 22.
The Times also arranged for Majczek to take a polygraph test, which was administered at Stateville Penitentiary by Leonarde Keeler, the co-investor and principal promoter of the polygraph. Majczek passed.
When State’s Attorney Thomas J. Courtney refused to reopen the case based on the Times disclosures and the polygraph results, the paper hired a well-known lawyer, Walker Butler, a Democratic member of the Illinois Senate and confidant of Democratic Governor Dwight H. Green. Rather than trying to reopen Majczek’s case in the courts, Butler took a course that could yield prompt results – filing for a pardon from Governor Green.
In addition to claims based on the Times disclosures, Butler developed a substantial claim that Majczek’s trial attorney, W.W. O’Brien, had performed incompetently. While Majczek’s conviction rested solely on Walush’s testimony, two other witnesses of dubious credibility had provided damaging testimony against Marcinkiewicz. One of these, Bessie Barron, claimed that a few days before the crime, Marcinkiewicz had told her “he was going to make the joint” - meaning the Walush speakeasy. The other, Bruno Uginchus, testified that the day after the murder, Marcinkiewicz had said that he had “had a little trouble.” Although the testimony of Barron and Uginchus should not have been used against Majczek, O’Brien had failed to object. He also had failed to investigate Majczek’s claim that he had been arrested on December 22. The issue had not been raised on appeal – not surprisingly, since O’Brien had handled the appeal.
On August 15, 1945, after a hearing before the Illinois Pardon Board, Governor Green granted Majczek a full pardon based on innocence. Marcinkiewicz, however, remained in prison without a champion. His plight seemed to have been forgotten by the Times and was ignored in Call Northside 777.
Shortly before Green left office in 1949, he offered to commute Marcinkiewicz’s ninety-nine-year sentence to seventy-five years, making him eligible for parole in 1958. Marcinkiewicz indignantly turned down the offer. It turned out that he had been wise to do so. In 1950, he was legally exonerated after Cook County Criminal Court Judge Thomas J. Lynch granted a state writ of habeas corpus, concluding that the prosecution “had suppressed facts, which amounted to a denial of a fair trial.” The prosecution then dismissed the charges.
The Illinois General Assembly approved special appropriations to compensate the wrongfully convicted men – $24,000 for Majczek and $35,000 for Marcinkiewicz.
- Researched by Rob Warden
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.