Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Earl Howard Pugh

Earl Howard Pugh (also referenced as Heywood Pugh) and his co-defendant, Walter Fowler, were convicted in 1937 for a murder that occurred the previous year in Cook County, Illinois. In 1948, five years before evidence of his innocence came to light, Fowler died in prison. In 1953, Pugh was exonerated and released. In 1955, the Illinois General Assembly awarded Pugh $51,000 for his pain and suffering – $3,000 for each of the 17 years he spent behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
The murder occurred shortly after midnight on September 5, 1936. William J. Haag, a white 42-year-old Railway Express Agency driver, was stabbed to death during an apparent robbery on South State Street in Chicago. Twelve days later, police happened upon Fowler and Pugh, who were African-American, scuffling with two men near the murder scene and arrested them. After six days of interrogation led by George Miller, the chief detective assigned to the Haag case, Fowler and Pugh signed confessions and a Cook County grand jury promptly returned true bills charging them with the murder.
At their joint trial the following year before an all-white jury, the confessions were the only evidence purporting to link Fowler and Pugh to the crime. Both took the stand and adamantly denied guilt, claiming that Miller and other detectives had beaten the confessions out of them. Pugh demonstrated that he had suffered a broken arm while in police custody, but the jury returned a guilty verdict on January 16, 1937.
Two weeks later, Cook County Superior Court Judge John Prystalski sentenced Fowler to 99 years and Pugh to life in prison. Prystalski took into account that Fowler, who was 36, had previously been convicted of robbery in Michigan and Ohio, but that Pugh, the 19-year-old son of a Memphis preacher, had no criminal record. Under parole criteria then in effect, 99 years was a more severe sentence than life.
In 1950, two years after Fowler died in prison, Pugh was visited by an aunt whom he had never met, Willa Mae Tandy. She became convinced of his innocence and enlisted members of her bridge club in Chicago to champion his cause. The club raised funds to retain a prominent lawyer, George N. Leighton, who also soon came to agree that Pugh—and the deceased Fowler—had nothing to do with Haag’s murder.
Pugh had not filed a direct appeal, which was time barred long before Leighton entered the case, but Leighton promptly filed a petition for post-conviction relief. (At the time, Illinois law allowed such petitions for up to 20 years after conviction. This has since been amended, shortening the filing period to three years—which would have rendered Pugh’s situation hopeless.) Normally such petitions are heard by the trial judge, but because Prystalski died shortly before Leighton filed the petition, the case was assigned to Judge Daniel A. Covelli.
In October 1952, Covelli began an evidentiary hearing that was continued several times over the following eight months, during which prosecutors insisted that all files relating to the case had been lost or destroyed. In June 1953, however, the lead detective, George Miller, inadvertently allowed Leighton to see a manila folder containing exculpatory information that police had concealed for 17 years. The file contained statements from two eyewitnesses who had identified the actual killer as a neighborhood thug named Eddie Leison. Police had obtained the statements several hours before Pugh and Fowler were arrested, but, after the arrest, they ignored all the evidence pointing to another suspect.
On June 19, 1953, based on the exculpatory revelation, Judge Covelli granted Pugh a new trial, calling the case the worst miscarriage of justice he had ever seen. Four days later, the prosecution dropped the charges and Pugh was released from custody. Leison was never charged with any wrongdoing and no action was taken regarding the official misconduct that led to the wrongful prosecutions and imprisonment.
- Rob Warden
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1936
Age at the date of crime:19
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Official Misconduct