After being mistakenly identified by seven robbery victims, 22-year-old James A. Long was convicted of the armed robberies of two Walgreen Drug Company stores in Chicago, Illinois, in 1934. He spent four months in Stateville penitentiary before being cleared on all counts as a result of confessions made by the actual perpetrator.
At 10:30 p.m. on March 24, 1934, two men walked into a Walgreens drug store at Lawrence and Damen Avenues in Chicago and robbed three employees at gunpoint. Fifteen minutes later, approximately three miles from the first robbery, the two men held up a second Walgreens drug store, this time robbing four employees.
The following night, James Long was arrested along with his friend, George Wilch, outside a tavern where the two had been drinking beer. Both men were identified by all seven robbery victims and were promptly charged with armed robbery. After their indictments, their cases were assigned to Judge Donald McKinlay in the Criminal Court of Cook County, where both defendants unsuccessfully presented alibis.
Before the alibi witnesses for Long testified, Wilch produced a witness named Richard Thrush, who testified that Wilch was a customer in a cafe where Thrush was a waiter during the time of the robberies. After his testimony, Thrush was taken into custody by the State's Attorney's office and confessed to perjuring himself on the witness stand. He then found himself on the stand once again, this time testifying that his previous testimony had been a falsehood. Judge McKinlay eventually sentenced Thrush to thirty days in the county jail for contempt of court.
Following this episode, defense witnesses testified on behalf of Long’s alibi but had little impact on the jury. After two hours of deliberation, the jury found the defendants guilty as charged, and both were immediately given a sentence of one year to life in prison. When the court asked Long if he wanted to say anything before his sentence was announced, tears came to his eyes and he replied, “I'm innocent.”
Long spent the subsequent four months in prison with little hope that the truth would ever surface. His case took a sudden turn on August 27, 1934, when police – acting on a secret tip – arrested a man by the name of Edwin Brethauer, who was a friend of Wilch. To the surprise of the officers, Brethauer readily confessed to a series of robberies that he committed alongside Wilch, including the Walgreens hold-ups for which Long had been convicted. While there was no doubt that the seven victims had identified Wilch correctly, their identification of Long – who bears a striking resemblance to Brethauer – was a mistake. After a court hearing in which the seven Walgreens employees revised their original testimony and acknowledged their mistake, Long was discharged and released in September 1934.
The House of Representatives appropriated $12,000 as compensation to Long, but Long never saw a penny of it as a result of Illinois Governor Henry Homer’s veto.
– Researched by Billy 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.