Convicted on four counts of forgery, Irving Greenwald served only a few months of a seven and one-half year prison term before exculpatory evidence surfaced that would lead President Coolidge to grant Greenwald a full and unconditional pardon.
In January 1924, a man stole nearly two hundred money order blanks from post-office substation No. 28 in Buffalo, New York, after coming inside the post-office to use the telephone. Witnesses to the crime described the culprit as a man with blond hair and blue eyes who was between five and a half and six feet tall.
Later that month and into February and March of that year, the stolen money orders began to appear in stores all across the New York area. Because the stolen money orders all possessed similar, linking characteristics such as close order numbers that all purported to have been issued from post-office substation No. 28, the police were able to follow the trail to a man named J.C. Alderman.
Believing the name J.C. Alderman was an alias for Irving Greenwald, the police arrested Greenwald in a Wall Street department store while he was negotiating a money order for $75 bearing what police suspected was the forged endorsement of W. Gallagher, the postal clerk at substation No. 28 in Buffalo where the money orders had been stolen. Since Greenwald fit the eyewitness descriptions provided by the clerks of various defrauded proprieties – Greenwald had both blond hair and blue eyes – the police were convinced they had found their man. Despite his adamant assertions of innocence, Greenwald was identified by the witnesses as the perpetrator, and on April 11, 1924, the grand-jury indicted him on four counts of passing and uttering forged money orders.
Calling on the help of Joseph Lilly, a close friend and one-time Assistant United States Attorney in New York, Greenwald asked that Lilly defend him in court. To Lilly’s dismay, the prosecutor, James Johnson, was so sure of Greenwald’s guilt that at one point he described the case against Greenwald as “cast-iron, brass-bound, copper-riveted and air tight.” Since Lilly knew that Johnson was not in the habit of making hyperbolic statements, he went to his client in jail and advised him to plead guilty in the hope that he would receive a lesser prison term at sentencing. Refusing to plead guilty, Greenwald maintained his innocence, although he did not have a single witness to call on his own behalf nor did he have the money to pay an expert to prove the handwriting on the forged money orders was not his.
On April 14, 1924, Greenwald entered a plea of not guilty, and seven days later, on April 21, his trial began. Taking the stand in his own defense, Greenwald contradicted the government’s witnesses, who all identified to the jury that he was the culprit. After taking only a few minutes to deliberate, the jury returned with a guilty verdict, convicting Greenwald on three of the four counts for which he was indicted. To punish Greenwald for his steadfast denial of any involvement, the presiding judge sentenced him to the maximum prison term – nearly eight years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.
In the wake of Greenwald’s conviction and imprisonment, more stolen money orders began to appear in Philadelphia and New York. The money orders bore the same forged signature of the Buffalo postal clerk and bore numbers very close to those which had been passed earlier in New York. Confounded at this seeming paradox, the authorities realized that they had arrested the wrong man and soon thereafter they resumed their search for the guilty party. Arranging a trap, they caught a man named Richard Barry as he was trying to pass one of the money orders in a large Philadelphia store.
Within sixty days of Greenwald’s conviction, Lilly was called into the office of Assistant District Attorney Johnson. Johnson informed him that they had Richard Barry in custody and that he had confessed to the crimes for which Greenwald had been convicted.
Giving the names and places where he passed forged money orders and claiming to have acted alone, Barry left no doubt as to his guilt. Although the witnesses, at first, were reluctant to admit they had erred, when they heard Barry cite incidents that occurred while he was examining goods placed before him by the storekeepers themselves, they quickly recanted their previous statements and identified Barry as the guilty man. Barry was indicted on the same counts as Greenwald, and on June 23, 1924, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in the Atlanta penitentiary.
Greenwald’s attorney filed a motion for a retrial on the basis of newly discovered evidence. On a technicality, the judge denied the motion, ruling that he did not have the power to rescind a judgment and grant a new trial when the defendant had already begun to serve out his sentence. Unable to take his case to the Circuit Court of Appeals, Greenwald’s only other option was a presidential pardon. Fortunately for Greenwald, President Coolidge proved sympathetic to his cause and, on August 7, 1924, granted him a full and unconditional pardon on the ground that he was “innocent of the ...offenses of which he was convicted.”
- Researched by Jason Robin
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.