Convicted of armed robbery in 1919, Frank Pezzulich and his co-defendant, Frank Sgelirrach, were sentenced to eight to sixteen years in prison. Fourteen months later, they were released based on the testimony of one of the actual perpetrators.
At 8:00 p.m. on March 22, 1919, seven masked men robbed nine Croatian laborers in a boarding house in New York City. The robbers, all carrying pistols, took the victims’ money and then fled from the boarding house. One of the victims rushed out of the house and chased the robbers down the street. He managed to apprehend one of the perpetrators, a man named Frank Strolich. After obtaining Strolich’s address, the police, accompanied by one of the victims, entered Strolich’s boarding house. There, the accompanying victim identified 33-year-old Pezzulich and 27-year-old Sgelirrach as belonging to the group that robbed him. Neither man had ever been in trouble with the law, and they both claimed to know nothing about the crime.
On May 9, 1919, Strolich was convicted of the robbery. In order to prosecute Pezzulich and Sgelirrach, Assistant District Attorney Owen W. Bohan questioned Strolich further, hoping that he would testify against the others. Strolich, however, denied that Pezzulich and Sgelirrach had any involvement in the robbery and instead identified six other men. Pezzulich and Sgelirrach presented as their defense the testimony of seven people who claimed to have seen them at their boarding house during the entire night of the robbery. Despite their alibi, the two men were tried and convicted based on the testimony of three of the victims, who claimed they were able to see the robbers’ faces because their masks had slipped. The six remaining victims were unable to identify either man. Pezzulich and Sgelirrach were convicted on June 17, 1919, and each sentenced to eight to sixteen years in prison.
In January 1920, three men were arrested in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for an unrelated crime. Since they were among those who had been previously identified by Strolich as accomplices in the New York City robbery, police took them back to New York where they were arrested and questioned about the March 1919 robbery. They all signed written confessions, but when asked to identify the six remaining robbers, they denied that Pezzulich and Sgelirrach had been involved in the robbery. Shortly after the indictments, one of the men, Tony Blazcik, jumped bail and became a fugitive. He was never apprehended.
Assistant District Attorney Bohan, concerned about the implications of Strolich’s statement and those of the other three men who had been recently arrested, initiated the process of freeing Pezzulich and Sgelirrach. On August 19, 1920, they were released from prison on a certificate of reasonable doubt. Bohan immediately filed a motion for a new trial, which was granted. During the trial, he presented the statements of Strolich and the three men arrested in Milwaukee. He also noted that, although three of the victims positively identified Pezzulich and Sgelirrach, they may have been mistaken because they were frightened and the lighting in the boarding house was poor. Further, Bohan noted that two of the men arrested in Milwaukee bore a physical resemblance to Pezzulich and Sgelirrach.
On April 28, 1921, the indictments against Pezzulich and Sgelirrach were dismissed.
– Lily Becker
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.