Walter Fowler

Black defendants, white victim, false confessions, withheld evidence

Two African American men — Walter Fowler and Heywood Pugh (a.k.a. Earl Howard Pugh) — were convicted in 1937 in Cook County of the murder of William J. Haag, a white Railway Express Agency driver, who was stabbed to death during an apparent robbery on September 5, 1936. The convictions rested on signed confessions obtained by the Chicago Police. Fowler was sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison and Pugh to life. Fowler died in prison in 1948, five years before evidence of his innocence came to light. Pugh was exonerated and released in 1953 based on exculpatory information that police had hidden for seventeen years — statements from two eyewitnesses to the murder identifying another man, Eddie Leison, as Haag’s killer. In 1955, the Illinois General Assembly awarded Pugh $51,000 for his pain and suffering — $3,000 for each year he spent behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

Case Chronology

September 5, 1936 — William J. Haag, a white forty-two-year-old Railway Express Agency driver, is stabbed to death during an apparent robbery on South State Street in Chicago.

September 17, 1936 — Two African American men — Walter Fowler, thirty-seven, and Heywood Pugh (a.k.a. Earl Howard Pugh), nineteen — are arrested in the vicinity of the crime. Both sign written statements confessing to the murder.

January 17, 1937 — Fowler and Pugh testify that their confessions were beaten out of them, but a Cook County Superior Court jury finds both men guilty.

January 27, 1937 — Superior Court Judge John Prystalski sentences Fowler to ninety-nine years and Pugh to life in prison.

1949 — Fowler died in prison.

1950 — A Chicago garden club to which Pugh’s aunt, Willa Mae Tandy, belongs retains Chicago attorney George N. Leighton to bring a petition for post-conviction relief on Pugh’s behalf. (Direct appeal already was time-barred when Leighton entered the case.)

June 1953 — George Miller, the Chicago Police detective who obtained Fowler and Pugh’s confessions, inadvertently allows Leighton to see a manila folder containing statements from two eyewitnesses who had identified the actual killer as a neighborhood thug named Eddie Leison. (Police had obtained these statements several hours before Pugh and Fowler were arrested, but failed to pursue Leison as a suspect.)

June 19, 1953 — Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Covelli grants Pugh a new trial, calling the case the worst miscarriage of justice he had ever seen.

June 23, 1953 — Prosecutors drop charges against Pugh.

Case Data

Crime date: September 5, 1936
Jurisdiction: Cook County, Illinois
Crime: Murder
Related crime(s): Robbery
Age: 37
Gender: Male
Race or ethnicity: African American
Arrest date: September 17, 1936
Victim: Walter J. Haag
Victim’s occupation: Railway Express Agency driver
Victim’s gender: Male
Victim’s race: White
Victim’s age: 42
How defendant became a suspect: Happened to be in vicinity where crime occurred twelve days after the fact.
Principal evidence of defendant’s guilt: Signed confession
Principal defense: Claim confession was beaten out of him
Type of trial: Jury (all-white)
Conviction date: January 17, 1937
Convicted of: Murder
Sentence: Ninety-nine years
Appellate record: None (there was no direct appeal, and Fowler died in 1949)
Basis for exoneration: Co-defendant Earl Howard Pugh exonerated in 1953 based on disclosure of exculpatory information police had withheld for seventeen years
Legal form of exoneration: Charges dismissed
Release date: (Died in 1949)
Days of incarceration: 4,674
Prior record: Robbery convictions in Michigan and Ohio
Compensation: None

— Rob Warden