Oscar Walden, Jr.

Exonerated 50 years after tortured confession

On January 11, 2003, Illinois Governor George H. Ryan granted a pardon based on innocence to Oscar Walden, Jr., an African American who was convicted by an all-white jury of raping and robbing a 48-year-old white woman more than a half century earlier.

The crime for which Walden was wrongfully convicted occurred on November 24, 1951, in the Kensington police district on the far south side of Chicago. The victim, Elsie Anderson was severely beaten and hospitalized. She described her attacker as a black man who wore thick-lens glasses. In the weeks following the crime, police paraded dozens of suspects before Anderson. She identified no one, but on December 23, 1951, she called police and reported that she had just seen her attacker on a bus. Police responded immediately and forcibly removed Walden, a 20-year-old Moody Bible Institute student with thick glasses, from the bus. About an hour later, Walden was brought face to face with Anderson, but she failed to identify him.

Over the next three days, Walden was interrogated by, among others, Officers Joseph Faculak and Leon Sweitzer, whom Walden accused of threatening to strip him naked, hang him from overhead pipes, and beat him with rubber hoses unless he confessed. Finally, in the lobby of the Kensington station, before a group of officers, Walden apologized to Anderson, tacitly admitting the crime. Although Anderson had been unable to identify Walden after his arrest, she identified him in court seven months later.

Based on Anderson's testimony and Walden's own statements, the all-white jury deliberated only minutes before returning a verdict of guilty. On July 2, 1952, Judge Charles S. Dougherty sentenced Walden, who had no prior record, to 75 years in prison.

The following year, a man named Benjamin Sutton was indicted for three rapes that occurred in the Kensington district between February 27 and October 3, 1952. Like Walden, Sutton wore thick glasses and otherwise closely resembled Walden. In the Cook County Jail, awaiting trial, Sutton allegedly told a fellow prisoner, Earl Sanders Smith, that he had committed the rape for which Walden had been convicted. Later, in the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet, Sutton repeated his admission to Peter Tanis, the prison's protestant chaplain. Smith and Tanis both provided affidavits about the admissions to Walden's lawyers, but the courts would not reopen the case.

Walden remained in prison until November 1965, when he was released on parole. In 1978, Governor James R. Thompson granted Walden a general pardon based not on innocence but rather on his exemplary post-prison life. The pardon based on innocence that Walden received in 2003 qualified him for compensation totaling $120,300 through the Illinois Court of Claims.

— Rob Warden