Based on the testimony of two jailhouse informants, 24-year-old Valentine Harpstrite was convicted of murder in 1929 in St. Clair County, Illinois, and sentenced to life in prison. He was released two decades later – after, but not because, the informants recanted. It was not until 1968, however, that he was officially exonerated by a pardon based on innocence.
On September 9, 1928, Justus Nungesser was shot to death in a cornfield on his farm near Muscoutah, Illinois. An itinerant laborer heard the shots and alerted Nungesser’s neighbor, Frank Grimmer, who rushed to the scene. Moments before Nungesser lapsed into a coma from which he would not awaken, Grimmer asked him if he knew who had shot him. “I don't know him,” Grimmer quoted his dying neighbor as saying. “He was a stranger.”
That statement would seem to have eliminated Harpstrite as a suspect, since he and Nungesser were well acquainted. Harpstrite was the operator of a speakeasy in New Baden, in adjoining Clinton County. Nungesser, who was about sixty-five, was a frequent patron of Harpstrite’s illegal establishment. Three months after the murder, Harpstrite was arrested in Clinton County for bootlegging, fined $300, and sentenced to ten days in jail. He later would allege that, while serving that sentence, Clinton County Sheriff Joseph E. Ragan repeatedly beat him in an unsuccessful effort to extract a confession to the Nungesser murder. After a few days, Harpstrite was taken to St. Clair County where the beatings allegedly continued, still to no avail.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Ragan obtained a signed confession to the crime from Elmer Linder, a 25-year-old farmhand. Linder blamed Harpstrite and Raymond Rensing, an 18-year-old coal miner, for the actual killing, minimizing his own role. He said he had driven from his home in Trenton to New Baden early the morning of Sunday, September 9, to buy half a pint of whisky at Harpstrite’s saloon. Once there, Harpstrite and Rensing asked him to drive them to Nungesser’s farm “to get some money.” He agreed and, when they arrived, waited in the car as his cohorts crossed Nungesser’s cornfield on foot. Moments later, Linder heard shots. The confession contained no further details.
Rensing was promptly arrested and, after a day of questioning by St. Clair County Sheriff Charles Ahems, he also signed a confession implicating Harpstrite, who continued to deny the crime. The three were indicted and, in April 1929, were tried together before St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge Henry G. Miller and a jury. The trial record mysteriously disappeared soon thereafter and there was no appeal. The only surviving records are those from clemency proceedings between 1934 and 1968. From those records, however, it is clear that the trial was a one-sided affair.
Linder and Rensing had repudiated their confessions before the trial, claiming that they had been given only after they were beaten. Judge Miller admitted the confessions into evidence against the two, although not against Harpstrite – which was of limited benefit to Harpstrite because the jury knew the co-defendants had implicated him. The only evidence that Miller admitted against Harpstrite was the testimony of two jailhouse informants, 22-year-old Charles F. Pillow and 17-year-old George Shelton, who claimed to have overheard Harpstrite and Rensing talking about how they committed the crime.
Harpstrite sought to call Grimmer, the neighbor of the deceased, to testify that Nungesser had said that the man who shot him was a stranger, but Judge Miller excluded that testimony as hearsay. Although there was an exception to the hearsay rule for dying declarations, Miller held that Nungesser’s remark did not fall within that exception – because he had not known that he was dying when he made the statement. Harpstrite testified in his own defense, claiming to have been at his speakeasy at the time of the crime; by all accounts he was regularly open for business on Sunday mornings. An alibi witness not identified in the surviving records testified that he had gone to the speakeasy early on the morning of the crime to buy chewing tobacco and stayed there more than an hour, a period spanning the time of the crime. A jail trusty named O.T. Harvey testified for the defense that Pillow and Shelton had told him they would testify falsely against Harpstrite because Sheriff Aherns and Assistant State’s Attorney Curt C. Lundauer had promised them that they would be released in exchange for their testimony.
The jury found all three men guilty and on May 10, 1929, Miller sentenced Harpstrite and Rensing to life and Linder to fourteen years in prison. Sheriff Aherns then released the jailhouse informants, both of whom were facing theft charges. Harvey, the trusty who had testified for the defense, was then charged with perjury, convicted in November 1929 and sentenced to six months in jail.
Two years later, Pillow signed an affidavit saying that his testimony and that of the other informant, Shelton, indeed had been fabricated at the request of Sheriff Aherns and State’s Attorney Lindauer. In response, Aherns and Lindauer alleged that Pillow and Shelton had not been released but had escaped after testifying. Both informants were then arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison for escape.
In 1934, Harpstrite filed an application for a pardon and, before the Illinois Board of Pardons acted on the application the following year, Shelton provided an affidavit substantively identical to Pillow’s. Aherns and Lindauer again denied the allegations and the board recommended that Governor Henry Homer deny the pardon, which he did. Eleven years later, Harpstrite filed a second application, but the board again recommended denial and Governor Dwight H. Green agreed. Harpstrite remained in prison until 1949, when he was released on parole. In 1965, he filed a third pardon application, which received a positive recommendation and was approved in 1968 by Governor Samuel H. Shapiro. (Whether Linder and Rensing really were involved in the murder remained a mystery.)
The pardon was based on innocence, a prerequisite under an Illinois statute enacted in 1959 for automatic compensation from the state for wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Harpstrite sought the compensation, but it was denied in 1975 by the Illinois Court of Claims, which held that the compensation statute was not retroactive. To be eligible for compensation, said the court, he would have had to serve at least part of his sentence after the date of the statute’s enactment. Harpstrite thus received nothing for the 6,417 days he spent behind bars for a crime it was officially acknowledged he did not commit.
- 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.