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Charles Bernstein

In 1945, President Truman pardoned Charles Bernstein for his 1933 murder conviction in Washington, D.C., but Bernstein’s complicated history with the legal system began many years before this murder occurred.
Bernstein, a printer who grew up in New York City and left school at the age of sixteen, was first incarcerated in New York in 1914 when he was eighteen years old. He had been convicted of robbery after walking out of a drug store with an array of stolen items and was sentenced to fifteen months in prison.
In October 1918, two men robbed the First National Bank in Hopkins, Minnesota. At that time, Bernstein was 23 years old and living in New York City. Two witnesses to this robbery were shown a photograph of Bernstein as a teenager, and they identified him as the robber based on this photo. Another witness testified that Bernstein was not the robber. Bernstein was not without an alibi: he claimed he was at a hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the time of the crime. Two St. Paul police detectives and the hotel clerk testified as to the truth of the alibi. Nonetheless, Bernstein was convicted of robbery in October 1919 and sentenced to five to forty years in prison. Charles Connors was identified as the other robber and was convicted as well.
However, the prosecutor in Bernstein’s trial, Floyd B. Olson, had made such inflammatory comments to the jury with regard to Bernstein’s alibi that the judge granted Bernstein a new trial. Bernstein was released from prison for two months pending his retrial, but returned to prison in May 1921 when he was convicted once again at his retrial.
In the years following this conviction, however, prosecutor Olson, (who would later become the governor of Minnesota) came to believe there was a strong probability that the testimony provided by the St. Paul detectives as to Bernstein’s alibi was true. Believing that Bernstein and Connors were most likely innocent and did not belong in prison, Olson wrote a letter, dated June 27, 1928, to the Minnesota Board of Parole expressing this position with regard to the innocence of Bernstein and Connors and requesting that they be granted parole. Both Bernstein and Connors were released from prison on September 21, 1928, conditioned on their leaving Minnesota the next day and not returning for a set period of years.
In the early morning of April 21, 1932, a well-known gambler, Milton White Henry, was shot and killed while driving his convertible through Washington, D.C. The shooter had jumped out of a Hudson, shot Henry five times, and then quickly returned to the car, which was driven by another man. The abandoned Hudson was found later the same day. Bernstein was an acquaintance of Henry’s, and he was arrested in Philadelphia for Henry’s murder. Knowing that he could prove he was in New York at the time of the shooting, Bernstein waived extradition and voluntarily traveled to Washington, D.C. Bernstein was indicted under the name Charles Harris, though he claimed he had never used that name.
Bernstein claimed he was in New York with his common-law wife, Edna Harris, at the time of the crime. However, his attorney was concerned that this alibi would not be well received by jurors due to the common law nature of the marriage, so Edna Harris did not testify to avoid any such prejudice.
Carrel F. Rhodes, a Federal Trade Commission attorney, was the prosecution’s star witness. Rhodes lived in a house across the street from the scene of the shooting. After the shots that killed Henry were fired, Rhodes looked out his window and saw the shooter. He also heard the shooter say several words to his accomplice, who was driving the car. Rhodes confidently identified Bernstein as the shooter. Although several other individuals testified that Bernstein was in New York at the time of Henry’s murder, and although Rhodes was the only one of the five eyewitnesses to the crime who identified Bernstein as the killer, Bernstein was convicted of first-degree murder in March 1933 and sentenced to death.
Supporters of Bernstein, including reporter Martha Strayer of the Washington Daily News, began investigating the details of Bernstein’s conviction. In doing so, they discovered an array of new evidence of his innocence. Several additional witnesses to the crime who had never been called to testify in Bernstein’s trial, including one who had come face-to-face with the shooter, confirmed that Bernstein was not the shooter. Rhodes, the prosecution’s eyewitness, was discovered to have severe astigmatism, yet he was without his glasses at the time he viewed the shooter across the street, and a tree in front of his window was in full bloom at the time of the shooting, largely obscuring his view. It was also learned that the day after the murder, Rhodes had told a co-worker that all he knew about the murder was that he had heard the shots.
Although he had garnered many supporters, Bernstein’s mental health suffered greatly as he sat on death row, suffering six breakdowns under the stress. With Bernstein’s execution date looming very near, Edna Harris finally testified before the U.S. pardon attorney, providing new evidence in support of Bernstein’s claim that he was in New York at the time of the crime. Bernstein’s appellate attorney prepared a legal brief outlining the new evidence of innocence and sent it to Eleanor Roosevelt. After reading the brief, Mrs. Roosevelt discussed it with her husband, who then granted several consecutive reprieves so that the Department of Justice could further investigate the matter. In May 1935, just minutes before Bernstein’s execution was scheduled to take place, President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally commuted Bernstein’s sentence to life in prison.
Five years later, on June 13, 1940, Bernstein was released from prison on a conditional pardon. On April 30, 1945, President Harry S. Truman granted an unconditional pardon to Bernstein. It was the very first pardon that President Truman signed. On July 12, 1945, Edward J. Thye, governor of Minnesota, pardoned Bernstein for his 1919 robbery conviction as well.
Bernstein tried for many years to be compensated for his wrongful conviction. A 1961 news article quoted him as saying that “you can’t be bitter at a soulless machine. The trouble with a criminal courtroom is that it’s an arena in which gladiators try to win, not a place where truth is sought.”
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1932
Age at the date of crime:37
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID