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Aaron Turner


On the evening of December 15, 1945, owner Frank Endres and employee Charles B. Simmons were the only people present at Ace Broom Co., a broom factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when one or more individuals entered the business. Endres and Simmons were both severely beaten with a metal weapon and $200 was stolen. Neither Endres, who was 63, nor Simmons, who was 45, regained consciousness. They each died within the week.

On May 24, 1946, 29-year-old Clarence Lofton was arrested in connection with an unrelated murder, and during his interrogation, Lofton confessed to his involvement in the murders of Endres and Simmons. Police stated Lofton’s confession implicated 18-year-old Jasper “Playboy” Johnson and 26-year-old Aaron “Treetop” Turner as his accomplices in the Ace Broom Co. crimes.

Turner was arrested on the morning of June 3, 1946 and held in police custody without a hearing until June 8. During this time, he was also denied the right to contact his family or an attorney, and he was interrogated, off and on, throughout the days and nights. Turner would later say he was also beaten and abused. On the fourth day of his interrogation, Turner broke and stated simply that he had killed the person he was being accused of killing. The next morning, June 8, police prepared a written confession for Turner to sign, and then he had his preliminary hearing before the magistrate. The district attorney later admitted that this hearing had been intentionally withheld until the interrogation produced a confession. On June 8, Turner also signed the written confessions that had been obtained from Lofton and Johnson.

Edwin P. Rome, a private attorney, was appointed to represent Turner in his murder trial. Although Rome had never handled a murder case before, he would prove to be a skilled legal advocate. Turner’s murder trial took place in September 1946 before Judge Frank Smith in the Philadelphia Court of Quarter Sessions. Although Turner was charged with murder in the deaths of Endres and Simmons, he was tried only for the murder of Endres. Turner’s signed confession, as well as the corresponding confessions of Johnson and Lofton, each signed by all three men, were offered as the primary evidence.

Turner took the stand in his own defense. He said he had falsely confessed as the result of fear and physical violence, accusing the detectives of beating him to obtain his confession. He testified that he could not specifically remember what he was doing at the time of the murders but that he had no involvement in the crimes. The detectives took the stand and denied beating Turner.

On September 26, 1946, after deliberating for an hour, the jury found Turner guilty of murder. Without a recommendation from the jury for clemency, death was the mandatory sentence for Turner.

Johnson was also convicted of first-degree murder in January 1947. At his trial, Johnson denied any involvement in the murders of Endres and Simmons. Judge Edwin O. Lewis postponed Johnson’s sentencing pending his motion for a new trial. Lofton, who, according to the confessions, had served as the “lookout” for the group, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison in February 1947.

Turner filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied in March 1947. Turner appealed this decision, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the conviction in March 1948. Pennsylvania Chief Justice George W. Maxey wrote for the majority, finding no evidence of coercion or violation of Turner’s due process rights in the circumstances surrounding his confession. Turner’s execution was scheduled for May 24, 1948, but on May 19, Governor James H. Duffy issued a stay of execution to permit Turner to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In June 1949, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the coercive methods used to extract Turner’s confession, including holding him for an improperly long period of time before his arraignment, had been a denial of his due process rights. The Supreme Court reversed his conviction, holding Turner’s confession to be inadmissible.

Turner’s retrial took place in October 1949, with Turner again taking the stand in his own defense and accusing Philadelphia detectives Daniel O’Mahoney, Samuel Riccardi, and Nathaniel Thompson of beating him to obtain his confession. Turner testified that he had no involvement in the murders. In accordance with the Supreme Court’s opinion, the State was not permitted to admit Turner’s coerced confession, which had served as the primary evidence against him in his first trial. Instead, Lofton testified as to Turner’s involvement. Prosecutors also submitted as evidence the testimony that Lofton and Johnson had provided regarding the crime at a preliminary hearing.

Additionally, Detective Thompson testified at Turner’s retrial. Thompson stated that he and Detective O’Mahoney had hidden in a jail cell next to Turner’s shortly after Turner’s arrest and had heard Turner confessing his involvement to his codefendants. According to Thompson, Turner was in a cell with Lofton and Johnson when the detectives overheard him say, “I had to hit the second man pretty hard and blood came out his ears.” Thompson had not mentioned overhearing such statements by Turner when he testified at Turner’s first trial, nor had he previously disclosed such to his superiors. Turner’s retrial ended in a conviction, and on June 16, 1950, he was again sentenced to death in the electric chair.

Rome quickly filed an appeal. On May 23, 1951, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Turner’s second conviction on the grounds that errors that led the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn his first conviction had been committed again when the court admitted testimony from Turner’s preliminary hearing, in that such testimony had been the product of the same coercive circumstances as the confessions. The court also found reversible error with regard to improper jury instructions by the judge.

Turner’s third trial began in June 1951. Detective Thompson, this time along with Detective O’Mahoney, served as the state’s principal witnesses, testifying to the incriminating jailhouse statement by Turner that they had allegedly overheard. Lofton was also again called to testify as a prosecution witness. Turner was found guilty on June 27, without a recommendation for mercy by the jury. In October 1951, he was again sentenced to death.

In May 1952, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned Turner’s third conviction and granted him a fourth trial on the basis that the testimony from Thompson and O’Mahoney related to statements by Turner during the period when he was being illegally detained.

In January 1953, Turner was tried for the fourth time. The state called Lofton as a witness, but he refused to testify. Following this refusal, the district attorney was permitted to read into evidence portions of Lofton’s testimony from Turner’s second and third trials. Within earshot of the jury, Assistant District Attorney Vincent Panati made reference to Turner’s three prior convictions for the same offense. Panati recommended mercy to the jury – rather than a death sentence – on the basis that Johnson and Lofton had ultimately been given life sentences. The jury opted to disregard this recommendation, meaning Turner would be sentenced to death for the fourth time. However, the Court of Quarter Sessions set aside the verdict and Turner was granted a new trial because of the patently prejudicial nature of the Panati’s comment about Turner’s previous convictions.

Following Turner’s fourth conviction, Lofton contacted Rome and requested to speak with him. With the court’s approval, Rome met with Lofton, who recanted his prior testimony regarding the murders. He swore to the truth of this recantation before a prison official, who notarized his statement.

After Turner’s fourth conviction was set aside, Rome and Panati visited Lofton in prison, and Lofton told both attorneys that his recantation was the truth. He informed Panati that he would refuse to testify against Turner if Panati were to attempt to call him as a witness in the future.

Turner’s fifth trial began in February 1954, before Judge Edward P. Little. Turner took the stand and denied that he was involved in Endres’s death. Although Lofton had repeatedly told Panati that he would not testify against Turner, he was still called as a witness. Lofton took the stand but refused to answer any of Panati’s questions except for those relating to his recantation. Lofton was held in contempt of court, and his testimony from Turner’s earlier trials was read into testimony by Panati on the basis that Panati was using the testimony to speak to the reliability of Lofton’s current claims that he had no knowledge of the crimes.

On February 20, 1954, the jury returned a guilty verdict for Turner and recommended life in prison. Less than an hour before announcing this verdict, the jury had informed Judge Little that they were unable to reach a verdict. After reviewing the differences between first- and second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter and receiving a lecture from Judge Little, the jury returned to deliberations and soon returned with the guilty verdict. In August 1956, Turner was formally sentenced to life in prison. Rather than accept life in prison, Turner sought another appeal, risking that his next sentence would again be death. He told Rome he would rather die than serve a life sentence something he did not do.

In June 1957, Turner successfully appealed his conviction on the basis that, under these circumstances, allowing Panati to read Lofton’s prior testimony was a prejudicial error. In granting a new trial, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court directed that unless the state could produce new evidence of guilt, Turner should be freed, since the current evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction. Following this ruling, District Attorney Victor Blanc stated that he knew of no additional evidence against Turner. On June 20, 1957, the charges against Turner were dropped and he was freed after eleven years of incarceration.

After securing Turner’s freedom, Rome, who had become a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, took over Jasper Johnson’s case on a pro bono basis. Rome was later joined by former Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice Alvin C. Jones as his co-counsel. Jones, who had been a justice at the time of Turner’s final appeal, wanted to represent Johnson pro bono as a matter of conscience. “I think,” said Jones, speaking of the Ace Broom Co. murders, “that the actual persons who did it have still not been apprehended.” Rome and Jones sought a full pardon for Johnson in 1962 but were unsuccessful. In December 1969, after 23 years in prison, Johnson’s sentence was commuted, and he was freed from prison. According to a newspaper article from 1985, Lofton was released as well, although further details could not be located.

- Meghan Barrett Cousino

State:PA
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1945
Convicted:1946
Exonerated:1957
Sentence:Death
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:26
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct