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Lee Arthur Hester

Other Cook County CIU Exonerations
On May 1, 2019, 72-year-old Lee Arthur Hester was exonerated of the 1961 murder of a Chicago elementary school teacher when he was 14 years old. The dismissal of the charges came nearly 58 years after he was convicted based on faulty forensics and a false confession coerced by Chicago police.

The exoneration was the result of several years of investigation by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law and a review by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit.

On January 10, 2020, Hester, who was released from prison on parole in 1972, was granted a certificate of innocence in Cook County Circuit Court, paving the way for him to seek compensation from the state of Illinois.

He was convicted of the murder of Josephine Keane, a 45-year-old master teacher at Lewis-Champlin Elementary School in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.

Keane frequently tutored children with behavioral or learning disabilities in one-on-one sessions in a book room located near the cafeteria on the first floor of the school. On April 20, 1961, she got the key to the room from the school office first thing in the morning. When she did not show up in the parking lot at the end of the day to join her carpool group, a search of the school was organized.

Ultimately, the only room left to search was the book room. Because Keane had taken the only key, a school engineer was summoned to open the door with a master key. Keane was found on the floor, stabbed to death and with her undergarments torn off. Her body was partially covered by her overcoat.

The shocking nature of the crime—the sexual assault and murder of a teacher in a school—resulted in extensive coverage by the media. The following day, two detectives went to the school office and asked if any of the students had ever been accused of sexually inappropriate behavior. A white gym teacher said that Hester, who was black, once had been—although the accusation had not been proven and no charges were ever filed—and that Hester had been tutored by Keane. Hester had an IQ of 82, and at 14 was in the fifth grade (three grades behind) because he was a slow learner. He was known to frequently disrupt his classes.

The detectives went to the third-floor classroom and asked the teacher, Jean Webster, to allow them to speak with Hester. Hester later said one of the detectives kicked him in the shin. The detectives said that was not true, and that they decided to take him to the police station for questioning because they saw blood spots on Hester’s clothing. He was allowed to go back into the classroom to get his jacket. When asked what was going on, he said, “They think I killed Mrs. Keane,” and the students erupted in laughter.

At the police station, detectives noticed what they believed was a lipstick smudge on Hester’s jacket so they took him to the Cook County Juvenile Center. He was given a gown and his clothing was confiscated for examination at the Chicago Police crime laboratory.

Police said that when they informed Hester that forensic evidence linked him to the crime, he confessed. Later that day, he gave a confession recorded by a court reporter in which he said that he and a classmate, Sherman Baker, were on their way back to class after dropping off empty milk cartons from their morning milk break when he saw Keane in the book room.

Hester said that as he approached Keane, he tripped. He had a knife up his sleeve connected to his wrist by a rubber band. As he fell forward, the knife came out and landed in his hand, and he ended up stabbing Keane in the back. While trying to get up, he tripped on some books and fell, stabbing her again. He said that when he turned Keane over, he stabbed her twice more in her breast, then pulled up her dress, and cut her garter belt off with his knife. He said he pulled out his penis and “squirted a little bit,” but never penetrated her. At that point, he leaned over her to listen for a heartbeat and in the process got lipstick on his coat.

According to the confession, Hester found the key to the room on the floor and locked the door when he left. He said he then returned to class with Baker, who was waiting for him. The key and a knife were never recovered.

He was charged as an adult with murder.

A case that seemed highly improbable on its face took an even more bizarre turn in July. Hester’s defense lawyers, Jerome Feldman and twin brothers Marshall and Edward Kaplan, sent a psychiatrist into the juvenile facility where Hester was being held. A guard, hearing a scream, rushed into the room and found Hester in a drowsy state. A nurse was summoned and retrieved an empty vial of sodium amytal—commonly known as “truth serum”—in a trash can. The psychiatrist was escorted out and the lawyers were reprimanded.

In September 1961, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Alexander Napoli conducted a hearing on a defense motion to suppress the confession. Hester’s lawyers presented evidence that the police never advised Hester of his right to an attorney and that no parent was with him during the interrogation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring police to advise suspects—Miranda v. Arizona—would not come until five years later in 1966.

Hester testified that two white detectives, John Killackey and William Keating, screamed at him, called him a liar, and were so close to him that their spit landed on his face. Sessions with them were alternated with sessions with two black detectives, Robert Perkins and Harold Thomas, who told him that they would protect him from the white detectives who were ready to shove his head through a wall. Hester said these officers told him he could go home if he admitted to the crime. They told Hester, who was still in the white gown, that they would go home and return with his mother and another set of clothes to wear.

Perkins and Thomas also told Hester falsely that his blood was found on Keane’s clothing, and that one of her hairs was found on his sweater—also untrue. Killackey and Keating told Hester falsely that his fingerprints were on a refrigerator in the book room. Hester said that during the interrogation, he was shown crime scene photographs and that ultimately, he made up a story that seemed to fit the crime scene. Hester testified that he rehearsed his statement several times before sitting down with the court reporter and a prosecutor.

Hester also asserted that he asked to see his mother at least three times, but his requests were denied.

The detectives testified that they did not verbally or physically abuse Hester, and that he quickly confessed after they confronted him with the crime lab findings. They admitted showing Hester crime scene photos, but not until after he confessed. The officers said they went to Hester’s mother’s home at about 2:45 p.m., but there was no testimony about what they said to her.

Judge Napoli denied the motion to suppress the confession. Although Hester was only 14 and was learning disabled, Napoli found that the confession was voluntary and not a product of coercion.

Steven Drizin, a Northwestern law professor and expert on false confessions who led the re-investigation of Hester’s case, published a detailed account of the case in 2011 in the Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy. The article described Hester’s trial as “a highly contested affair which involved a battle of the experts with regard to the physical and scientific evidence in the case and a swearing contest between Hester and the interrogating officers with regard to the confession.”

Drizin also noted that the case was a “cauldron of racial tension which boiled over at times. On one occasion, Hester exploded, breaking away from his guards, and high-jumping over a bench so that he could talk with his sister, who was sitting in the gallery. He was eventually restrained by prosecutors and detectives, but he managed to get in his licks first, kicking one prosecutor, punching Sergeant William Keating in the face and kicking Detective Sheldon Teller, before being held under control. In the midst of this fury, Hester threatened to kill everyone and blow up the building.”

A jury was selected and the first witness was called on September 26, 1961. Bessie McCaster, who was in Hester’s fifth grade classroom, told the jury that they had their morning milk break around 10 a.m. on the day of the crime. Afterward, Hester and Sherman Baker collected the empty cartons and took them to the cafeteria to place them in the garbage. Rosetta Harden, another classmate, testified that Baker came back to the classroom alone. She also testified that when Hester left the classroom, he was not wearing his coat.

Another classmate, James Daniel, testified that Baker and Hester left with the empty cartons and came back together. Classmate Theresa Cooper testified that before class that day, she saw Hester by the cloak room with “something that looked like a knife.”

Ruth Becker, the assistant principal, testified that she had a conversation with Keane in the book room about 9:30 a.m. A pathologist who conducted the autopsy testified that Keane was killed sometime between 8 a.m. and noon. She had been stabbed seven times. During cross-examination, he said he found no semen stains on her body or her clothing.

Claude Hazen, a "microanalyst" for the crime lab, testified that he compared a hair found on Hester’s coat with a hair removed from Keane’s head. He said that the reddish brown material on the hair on Hester’s jacket “could be blood.” He also said that medullary structures of the two hairs were “similar” and that the fissures were “consistent.” The density of the two hairs was “identical” and the refractive index—the measure of how fast light passed through them—also was identical.

During cross-examination, Hazen was asked if it was possible that the hair on Hester’s jacket came from a male. “It is very remote,” he said. “It is very, very remote, in my opinion, that the hairs compared could have come from different sources of origin.” Asked if it was possible to “individualize” hair, he said, “Only to a degree.”

Pressed further, Hazen said, “I cannot say that the hair removed from the jacket came from the deceased to the exclusion of all other people. But there is, on the basis of the tests made, a great degree of possibility that it came from the same source [Keane].”

Andrew Principe, a chemist in the crime lab, testified that Keane’s blood was type A. He said that the reddish substance on the hair found on Hester’s jacket was blood, but he could not determine its type because there was an insufficient amount to test. He said that he found type A blood on the cuff and crotch of Hester’s pants and on the left leg of his underwear. Hester had type O blood, Principe said.

Principe said he microscopically compared the smear on Hester’s jacket with smears made on paper with the six lipsticks found in Keane’s purse. He said the smear on the jacket was “similar” in fluorescence and color reflectance with a blue lipstick found in Keane’s purse.

Principe also testified that he compared a metal fragment found in Keane’s underwear with metal particles found in a pocket of Hester’s jacket. He said the refractive indexes of the particle from Keane’s underwear and from the jacket pocket were “identical.” He said the particles both had the same number of layers, the same approximate thickness, and were similar in color. “It is my opinion that these particles are of the same origin,” Principe testified.

The detectives testified and denied showing crime scene photos to Hester before he confessed and denied that Hester had asked to see his mother. The detective who initially took Hester from his classroom denied that he kicked Hester in the shins.

Hester testified as he had at the pretrial hearing about the circumstances of his confession and denied that he committed the crime. He denied taking cartons down to the cafeteria that day and said he did not leave the classroom at all. Hester’s mother testified that she did not learn her son was in police custody until 6 p.m. after he had confessed.

Jean Webster, the teacher in the classroom that day, testified for the defense that the class was given a 15-minute bathroom break at 9:45 a.m., and that Hester was in the classroom from 10 a.m. to noon when she sent him home early because he was being disruptive. Webster said Hester did not take the empty cartons to the cafeteria.

Baker testified and said he took the empty cartons to the cafeteria not with Hester, but with another classmate named Lorenzo Walker.

On October 9, 1961, the jury convicted Hester of murder. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison. On March 28, 1969, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld Hester’s conviction and sentence, although Justice Walter Schaefer dissented, particularly over the majority’s finding that the officers who went to Hester’s mother’s home “apparently” told her that he was in police custody. In fact, Schaefer noted, the prosecution “persistently objected” to questions about what the officers told her.

“Testimony as to that conversation was totally excluded,” Schaefer said. “What the record shows is that the prosecution consistently and successfully resisted every attempt to find out whether the police officers told the defendant's mother where he was, and what efforts she made to see him.”

Hester was released on parole on August 8, 1972.

In his 2011 article, Drizin said the re-investigation of Hester’s case was “in full swing.” This included an interview with Jerome Feldman, one of Hester’s trial lawyers. Feldman reported that after Hester was arrested, a psychologist at the Psychiatric Institute of the Municipal Court of Chicago called him and told him “in confidence” that a white man who was a janitor at the school at the time of Keane’s murder tried to commit suicide shortly after the crime. “The psychologist told Feldman that when the janitor was brought to the Institute to be evaluated, he had confessed to raping and killing Mrs. Keane and said that someone else had been charged with the crime.”

Feldman said that at the time he believed—but had no proof—that the man in question was an engineer at the school who was a World War II veteran with a history of mental health issues and who had been the subject “of several complaints by female teachers at the school.”

In 2018, Drizin, along with Northwestern lawyers Laura Nirider, Tom Geraghty, and Maria Hawilo as well as Hester’s other lawyers, Patrick Fitzgerald, Brian Wallach, and Daniel Scime, requested the Conviction Integrity Unit examine their findings and re-investigate Hester’s case.

On May 1, 2019, Hester’s legal team presented a motion seeking to vacate Hester’s conviction to Cook County Chief Circuit Court Judge Leroy Martin Jr.

The motion said the Conviction Integrity Unit had concluded that Hester’s confession “was not a reliable piece of evidence....The statement was taken under circumstances that, if they arose today, almost certainly would have resulted in the suppression of the statement and its exclusion from evidence. Mr. Hester was not advised about his fundamental Constitutional rights, and he was not permitted to have contact with his mother before making the statement.”

Moreover, the review showed the confession was contradicted “in almost every material respect by the physical evidence in the case,” the motion said. In addition, the prosecution concluded that the expert testimony about blood, hair, and other materials “is no longer considered to be scientifically reliable” and was “inaccurate, misleading or based on flawed methodologies.”

Judge Martin granted a motion to reinstate the case, vacated the conviction, and the prosecution dismissed the case. Hester was granted a certificate of innocence and in April 2020, he was granted $236,095 in compensation from the state of Illinois.

Hester died in September 2022.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/23/2020
Last Updated: 11/13/2022
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1961
Sentence:55 years
Age at the date of reported crime:14
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No