James Long

Seven Eyewitnesses — All Wrong

Identification testimony by seven witnesses led to James Long's 1934 conviction for a Chicago armed robbery. After four months in prison, thanks to a confession by the man for whom he had been mistaken, Long was exonerated and released.

The witnesses who erroneously identified Long were employees of two Walgreen drug stores that were robbed the night of March 24, 1934, by two pistol-wielding men on the city's north side. The first robbery occurred at 10:30 p.m. at Lawrence and Damen avenues, and the second about fifteen minutes later about three miles away at a store at Granville and Winthrop avenues.

Long, twenty-two years old, was arrested the next night with a friend, George Wilch, outside a tavern where they had been drinking. After the victims identified them, both were charged with the crimes. The next month they were tried together before a jury in the Cook County Criminal Court. Both offered alibi defenses, which were marked by one major difference — Long's was true, Wilch's was not.

Richard Thrush, Wilch's alibi witness, testified that Wilch was with him at a cafe where Thrush was a waiter at the time of the robberies. When Thrush finished testifying, he was arrested and, under questioning, admitted that the testimony he had just given was perjured. Recalled to the stand, he repeated the retraction before the jury, sealing not only Wilch's fate but also Long's. Although Long's alibi was not discredited, it had little credibility in light of Thrush's performance. The jury deliberated two hours before finding both defendants guilty.

When Judge Donald McKinlay asked the defendants if they had anything to say before sentencing, Long replied, “I'm innocent.” McKinlay sentenced both men to indeterminate prison terms of a year to life in prison. He also sentenced Thrush to thirty days for perjury.

Four months later, Chicago police — acting on a tip — arrested Edwin Brethauer, a twenty-seven-year-old friend of Wilch's who bore a striking resemblance to Long. Brethauer readily confessed that he committed a series of robberies with Wilch, including the two drug store holdups for which Long had been convicted. After a hearing at which the seven eyewitnesses acknowledged that they must have mistaken Long for Brethauer, Judge McKinlay vacated Long's conviction and ordered his release from Stateville Penitentiary.

In 1936, the Illinois General Assembly appropriated $12,000 to compensate Long for his wrongful incarceration, but Governor Henry Horner vetoed the legislation. The only compensation Long received was $700 from the Walgreen Company.

— William S. Warden