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George Whitmore, Jr.

An eighth-grade dropout with a 90 IQ, George Whitmore, Jr. was wrongfully convicted three times of assaulting and attempting to rape a young woman in Brooklyn, New York, in 1964—a crime to which he confessed.
The case probably would not have been prosecuted had Whitmore not also confessed to a sensational crime that occurred eight months earlier—the murders of Janice Wylie, a 21-year-old Newsweek magazine researcher, and Emily Hoffert, a 23-year-old teacher, whose mutilated bodies were found in their apartment on the fashionable east side of Manhattan. Whitmore, a 20-year-old black man, was charged with the Wylie-Hoffert crime, but the charges were dismissed after the actual killer, Richard Robles, was arrested in 1965. The case inspired the popular 1970’s Kojak television series starring Telly Savalas in a role loosely based on a Manhattan detective who was instrumental in exonerating Whitmore and convicting Robles.
Whitmore also confessed to a third murder—that of Minnie Edmonds, a 46-year-old black cleaning woman, in Brooklyn ten days before he was arrested for the attempted rape. He was tried for the Edmonds crime in 1965, but the jury deadlocked, and the charges were dismissed the following year.
The victim of the crime for which Whitmore was thrice convicted was Elba Borrero, a 21-year-old practical nurse from Puerto Rico, who was attacked in an alley near her home in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn at 1:45 a.m. on April 23, 1964. A police patrolman heard Borrero scream, ran toward the scene of the attack, and fired warning shots at the fleeing assailant. A police sergeant interviewed Borrero and wrote a report describing the crime not as an attempted rape, but as an attempted purse snatching. Five hours after the incident, the patrolman spotted Whitmore walking along a street but concluded that he was too short and thin to be the assailant. The following morning, however, the patrolman and a detective picked up Whitmore for questioning, notwithstanding the patrolman’s initial conclusion that Whitmore was not the man. Through a peephole in the door of an interrogation room at the 73rd Precinct station, Borrero identified him as her attacker.
Among Whitmore’s possessions was a small photograph of a young white woman, whom another detective misidentified as Janice Wylie. On April 25, after 26 hours of interrogation, Whitmore signed a 61-page confession to all of the crimes. He was indicted in Kings County for the Edmonds and Borrero crimes and in New York County for the Wylie-Hoffert crime. Six months later, an all-white jury convicted Whitmore of the assault and attempted rape of Borrero, but the judge delayed sentencing pending the Wylie-Hoffert trial—in which a conviction could carry the death penalty. Both cases, however, would take dramatic turns in the months ahead.
In January 1965, Thomas J. Cavanaugh, Jr., the detective on whom the Kojak character was based, discovered that the photo in Whitmore’s pocket at the time of his arrest was not of Wylie, but of a New Jersey woman who had lost it. In February, largely as a result of Cavanaugh’s efforts, Richard Robles was indicted for the Wylie-Hoffert crime based on tape-recordings surreptitiously made by two of his friends. In recorded conversations, Robles described in detail how he had killed the young women.
Two months later, the Borrero trial judge vacated Whitmore’s conviction after determining, in a state habeas corpus proceeding, that the jury had been racially biased.
Although the obvious falsity of Whitmore’s confession to the Wylie-Hoffert crime cast serious doubt on the veracity of his confessions to the other crimes, Kings County prosecutors blithely continued as if nothing had happened. In April 1965, they brought Whitmore to trial for the Edmonds murder. The jury deadlocked, but prosecutors vowed to try him again. Then, in March 1966, Whitmore was again convicted in the Borrero case. This time he was sentenced to 5 to 10 years in prison.
Meanwhile, although business as usual was the order of the day in Kings County, Whitmore’s false confession was having significant impact elsewhere. In May 1965, in fact, the New York Assembly found the case sufficiently troubling that it voted 78 to 67 to abolish the death penalty. Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the bill into law on June 1. A year after that, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the Whitmore case in the landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona, which required police to advise suspects of their rights to remain silent and to consult with counsel before questioning. Shortly thereafter, the prosecutors dropped the Edmonds case, given that there was no evidence other than the confession, which Miranda had rendered inadmissible.
In April 1967, Whitmore’s second conviction in the Borrero case was overturned on the ground that the judge had refused to allow the defense to cross examine police concerning the false confession in the Wylie-Hoffert case. The following month, however, Whitmore was tried for Borrero crime for the third time. With the confession inadmissible under Miranda, the prosecution’s case now rested solely on Borrero’s identification, which was sufficient for the jury to convict. Again Whitmore was sentenced to 5 to 10 years.
Whitmore proceeded to exhaust his appeals and abandon any realistic hope of vindication. In December 1972, however, New York journalist Selwyn Raab, who had covered Whitmore’s travails for the New York World Telegram and Sun, obtained dramatic new evidence—an affidavit from Borrero’s sister, Celeste Viruet. The affidavit said that before Borrero identified Whitmore, police had shown her an array of photos of other possible suspects—and she had identified positively another man as her assailant.
By this time, Brooklyn had a new district attorney, Eugene Gold, who confirmed the accuracy of the affidavit and agreed to reopen the case. On April 10, 1973, at Gold’s request, a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge vacated Whitmore’s conviction, officially exonerating him. After his release, Whitmore sued for violation of his civil rights, but he lost and received no compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.
– Rob Warden
Most Serious Crime:Rape
Reported Crime Date:1964
Sentence:5 to 10 years
Age at the date of crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession