On the night of November 24, 1951, a 48-year-old woman was walking home from her daughter’s house in Chicago, Illinois, when a man jumped out and attacked her. He dragged her into a nearby vacant lot, where he raped her several times and threatened to kill her. He then took her watch and left. The woman returned to her daughter’s house and called the police. When officers arrived, the victim described her attacker as a young black man who wore thick glasses, stood approximately 5’ 8” to 5’ 10” tall, and had a flat nose and soft voice. She was taken to the hospital, where she was examined and found to have extensive injuries consistent with a brutal rape and attack.
The victim remained hospitalized while she healed, and during that time, she viewed fifteen to twenty suspects. She did not identify any of them as the perpetrator. Other suspects were brought before her after her release from the hospital, but she did not identify any of those individuals either. On December 23, 1951, the victim was reportedly at the same intersection where the attack had occurred when she spotted a man whom she believed to be the perpetrator. She believed he spotted her as well, based on the way he briefly ran into a drugstore and then hopped into a streetcar. On January 11, 1952, the drugstore clerk spotted a man fitting the same description and called police. Police arrested this man, 20-year-old Oscar Walden Jr., shortly after receiving the clerk’s call. Walden, a student of music and religion, had no prior criminal record and no previous dealings with police. The victim, who was white, was brought to the police station where she viewed Walden being interviewed by police, and she then identified him as the rapist without any type of lineup procedure. After his initial interrogation, Walden took a polygraph examination and was then locked in a jail cell for the night.
According to Walden, the next morning, police officers physically and verbally assaulted him during his interrogation. Officers falsely told Walden he had failed the polygraph, when in fact the results had been inconclusive. Walden requested an attorney after his arrest and during his interrogation, but his requests were denied. Walden later testified that officers threatened to jeopardize the wellbeing of his family and to subject him to more extreme violence unless he confessed. One officer informed Walden that he would get six months in prison or probation if he confessed. At 1:30 p.m. on January 12, Walden agreed to confess to the rape, and he signed a written confession. Later, at his trial, Walden testified that officers told him what to say in the confession. Walden personally apologized to the victim, which he would also later testify was an action forced by police.
At 5:30 p.m. the same day, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Egan came to the jail to meet with Walden. Walden asked to be alone with Egan, and once officers exited the room, Walden told Egan that the confession was not true. According to Egan, he did not see signs of physical abuse on Walden’s face or body at that time. Walden was not able to identify for Egan which officers had abused him. On January 14, in Egan’s office, Walden repeated the story of how his confession was coerced. Egan and his assistant examined Walden for bruises or abrasions and later testified that they did not observe any such marks.
At Walden’s trial in the Criminal Court of Cook County, Judge Charles S. Dougherty ruled that his confession was admissible. Walden, represented by attorney Joseph Clayton Jr., testified that the confession was false and given under duress. The victim was in court and positively identified Walden as the rapist. The jury, comprised of ten women and two men, found Walden guilty of rape on July 2, 1952, and he was sentenced to 75 years in prison on September 12, 1952. He served the first twenty months of his sentence on death row in the Cook County Jail.
Following his conviction, Walden petitioned the court for a writ of error, claiming that his confession had not been made voluntarily and that law enforcement witnesses for the prosecution had committed perjury. The petition was denied by the trial court, but the Illinois Supreme Court later remanded the matter for a hearing on whether Walden’s confession had been coerced. At the hearing, Walden’s wife, mother, father, and sister, and a minister, all of whom had come to see Walden in jail on January 14, 1952, testified that they had observed blood on Walden’s shirt, that his face was bruised and swollen, and that his shins had contusions. They also testified that Walden told them that a police officer bent his fingers backward. After this evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied Walden’s petition.
In February 1953, 18-year-old Benjamin Sutton was arrested and indicted for three rapes that had occurred the previous year, in the same area of Chicago as the rape for which Walden was been convicted. Sutton, also a young black man, closely resembled Walden, including wearing similar thick glasses. According to attorneys involved in the case, Sutton told a fellow prisoner and the prison chaplain at the Illinois State Penitentiary that he, not Walden, had committed the rape on November 24, 1951, and both witnesses to Sutton’s admission signed affidavits stating what they had heard. However, the court did not put enough weight on this new evidence to reopen the case.
With the help of civil rights attorney George N. Leighton, Walden was released on parole from Stateville Correctional Center on November 18, 1965. Following his release, he began a printing business and became a minister. In 1978, Walden met with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and presented a petition requesting a pardon. The petition was signed by hundreds of friends and community members, who had formed the “Citizens Committee to Vindicate Oscar Walden Jr.” Governor James R. Thompson pardoned Walden on June 30, 1978.
The pardon granted by Governor Thompson was a general pardon, which did not reference Walden’s innocence. After receiving the pardon, Walden learned that without an innocence-based pardon, he was not eligible under state law to collect damages for his wrongful conviction. Walden spent the next several decades in pursuit of an innocence-based pardon. Several bills to award compensation to Walden were introduced by state lawmakers, but they were all tabled.
On December 30, 2002, Governor George Ryan granted Walden a pardon based on innocence, and he was awarded $120,300 through the Illinois Court of Claims in 2003.
Walden filed a lawsuit in 2004 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against the City of Chicago, Cook County, seven former members of the Chicago Police Department, and two former state’s attorneys, claiming violations of his civil rights. His lawsuit also included several claims under state law. Represented by John Stainthorp and Flint Taylor, Walden sought $15 million in damages. The victim and all the police officers involved in Walden’s interrogation were deceased, and when the case went to trial in February 2011, much of the evidence came in the form of old testimony and transcripts read by actors. Experts testified as to the pattern of police abuse of black suspects that was common in Chicago in the 1950s. George Leighton, Walden’s appellate attorney from decades prior, who had later become a federal judge, was a witness as well. The 98-year-old former judge testified as to the details of the case, as well as to his knowledge of routine police abuse of black suspects during that time period. Walden testified over two days, detailing his interrogation experience. After a six-day trial, the jury rejected Walden’s claims of abuse and coercion and found in favor of the defendants.
Walden’s attorneys claimed that attorneys for the City of Chicago, Andrew Hale and Avi Kamionski, had acted improperly during the 2011 trial, by presenting damaging evidence that had been barred and making demeaning comments in front of the jury. U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo agreed that the city attorneys had acted improperly and inappropriately and set aside the jury’s verdict in early March 2012.
In April 2012, Walden filed a motion seeking payment of his legal fees and sanctions on the city and its counsel, Hale and Kamionski. The city’s new Corporation Counsel opted to settle with Walden rather than continue the dispute. In September 10, 2012, the Chicago City Council Finance Committee approved a payment of $950,000 to Walden, then 80 years old, to settle Walden’s claims.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
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.