George A. Whitmore

A plethora of false confessions

George A. Whitmore, a black eighth-grade dropout with an IQ of ninety, was convicted three times of assaulting and attempting to rape a young Puerto Rican woman in Brooklyn in 1964 — a crime to which he confessed. It is doubtful that the case would have been prosecuted had Whitmore not also confessed to a sensational crime that occurred eight months earlier — the murders of Janice Wylie, a twenty-one-year-old Newsweek magazine researcher, and Emily Hoffert, a twenty-three-year-old teacher, whose mutilated bodies were found in their apartment on the fashionable east side of Manhattan.

The victim of the crime for which Whitmore was thrice convicted was Elba Borrero, a twenty-old-year-old practical nurse from Puerto Rico, who was attacked in an alley near her home in Brownsville section of Brooklyn at 1:45 a.m. on April 23, 1964. Whitmore, nineteen, was picked up for questioning in the area the following day and, through a peephole in the door of an interrogation room, Borrero identified him as her attacker. At the the time of his arrest, Whitmore was carrying a tattered photo of a young white woman who police thought — mistakenly — was Janice Wylie.

Six months later an all-white jury convicted Whitmore of the attempted rape of Elba Borrero, but the judge delayed sentencing pending the Wylie-Hoffert trial — in which a conviction could carry the death penalty. In January 1965, however, a Manhattan detective discovered that the photo in Whitmore's possession at the time of his arrest was not of Wylie but rather of a young New Jersey woman who had lost the photo years earlier. In February, a drug addict named Richard Robles was indicted for the Wylie-Hoffert crime based on tape-recordings surreptitiously made by two of his friends. In recorded conversations, Robles described in detail how he had killed the young women.

Two months later, the Borrero trial judge vacated Whitmore's conviction after determining, in a state habeas corpus proceeding, that the jury had been racially biased. In March 1966, Whitmore was again convicted in the Borrero case. In April 1967, that conviction was overturned on the ground that the judge had refused to allow the defense to cross examine police concerning the false confession in the Wylie-Hoffert case. The following month, however, Whitmore was yet again tried for the Borrero crime. He was again convicted.

In December 1972, after Whitmore had exhausted his appeals, journalist Selwyn Rabb, who had covered Whitmore's travails for the New York World Telegram and Sun, obtained dramatic new evidence — an affidavit from Borrero's sister, Celeste Viruet. The affidavit said that, before Borrero identified Whitmore, police had shown her an array of photos of other possible suspects — and she had identified positively another man as her assailant. By this time, Brooklyn had a new district attorney who confirmed the accuracy of the affidavit. On April 10, 1973, a Supreme Court judge vacated Whitmore's conviction, officially exonerating him. Whitmore received no compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.

Case Chronology

August 28, 1963 — Janice Wylie, a 21-year-old Newsweek magazine researcher and summer stock actress, and Emily Hoffert, a 23-year-old teacher, are stabbed to death in the apartment they share at 57 E. 88th Street in Manhattan (New York County); Wylie is raped. Wylie is the daughter of Max Wylie, a New York novelist, playwright, and advertising executive. Hoffert is the daughter of a Minneapolis surgeon.

August 30, 1963 — Newsweek offers a $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the murderer or murderers.

April 14, 1964 — Minnie Edmonds, a 46-year-old African American cleaning woman and mother of five, is stabbed to death by a man who attempted to snatch her purse near Sutter Avenue and Chester Street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn (Kings County).

April 23, 1964 — Elba Borrero, a 21-year-old Puerto Rican practical nurse, is assaulted at 1:15 a.m. in what she describes as an attempted purse-snatching in Brownsville. NYPD Patrolman Frank Isola hears Borrero scream and runs to the scene. He fires four warning shots at the fleeing assailant. Police Sergeant Thomas J. Collier interviews Borrero and writes a report describing the assailant as "an unnamed Negro" and the crime as an attempted purse-snatching. Borrero gives police a button she ripped off the assailant's coat. Five hours after the assault, Isola encounters George Whitmore Jr. on the street, but concludes that Whitmore is shorter and thinner than the man he saw running from the scene.

April 24, 1964 — Cruising Brownsville, Isola and Detective Richard Aidala spot Whitmore and, despite the discrepancy between his appearance and that of the assailant Isola had seen, take him to the 73d Precinct station for questioning. After Aidala calls Borrero and tells her a suspect is in custody, she views Whitmore through a peephole in a door and says he is the man who tried to rape her. (This is the first mention of attempted rape.) Whitmore has in his possession a photograph of a young white woman whom Detective Edward Bulger identifies as Janice Wylie.

April 25, 1964 — After 26 hours of interrogation, Whitmore, a 19-year-old eighth-grade dropout with a 90 IQ, signs a 61-page confession admitting to the murders of Wylie, Hoffert, and Edmonds — and attempted rape of Borrero.

April 28, 1964 — Whitmore is indicted in Kings County for the Edmonds murder. His court-appointed attorney, Jerome Leftow, states that Whitmore has repudiated the confessions, claiming he was beaten during interrogation, and would like to take a lie-detector test.

May 5, 1964 — Whitmore is indicted in Kings County for the attempted rape and assault of Borrero.

May 6, 1964 — Whitmore is indicted in New York County for the Wylie-Hoffert crime.

October 31, 1964 — Police disclose that they are questioning another unidentified suspect in the Wylie-Hoffert case. The suspect is identified as a 19-year-old narcotics addict who has a record of burglary and sexual assault. (Evidently the suspect is Richard Robles, although Robles is not 19 but in his early 20s.)

November 9, 1964 — Whitmore's trial for the attempted rape and assault of Borrero opens in Brooklyn. (When a defendant faces trials for more than one crime, it is a common tactic of prosecutors to try the least serious case first so that, if convicted, the defendant will have a criminal record when he goes to trial for a more serious crime. This will discourage the defendant from taking the stand in the latter trial. If the defendant nonetheless chooses to testify, the prior conviction may be used for impeachment purposes on cross examination. It also may be used against the defendant at sentencing.)

November 18, 1964 — Whitmore is convicted by a jury before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice David L. Malbin of the Borrero assault and attempted rape, but Malbin delays sentencing pending Whitmore's trial for the Wylie-Hoffert murders.

January 22, 1965 — The New York Times quotes Stanley J. Reiben, Whitmore's pro bono lawyer, as saying that the photo found in Whitmore's possession was not a photo of Wylie but of a women named Arlene Franco, who lives in Wildwood, N.J.

January 26, 1965 — Richard Robles, a white 22-year-old narcotics addict, is charged with the Wylie-Hoffert crime. While not dismissing the indictment against Whitmore, New York County DA Frank S. Hogan presents a 1,400-word recommendation that Whitmore be released on his own recognizance. The document seems to absolve Whitmore of the crime, as does a statement Hogan releases to the press. Says the latter, "In spite of every safeguard, occasional honest mistakes are made. To eliminate even this minute fraction of error is the ceaseless effort of those entrusted with the administration of justice." Hogan's recommendation that Whitmore be released is accepted, although it is a meaningless gesture, given that Whitmore is being held pending sentencing for the Borrero crime and pending trial for the Edmonds murder.

January 27, 1965 — The New York Times quotes an unnamed assistant to DA Hogan as saying, "I am positive that the police prepared the confession for Whitmore, just as his lawyer charged a few days ago. I am also sure that the police were the ones who gave Whitmore all the details of the killings that he recited to our office.

January 29, 1965 — Kings County DA Aaron E. Koota meets with five representatives of the Brooklyn N.A.A.C.P. who demand that he dismiss the indictment against Whitmore for the Edmonds murder. Koota refuses and tells the press that Whitmore's "guilt or innocence of this crime should be determined by a jury based on all the evidence in the case."

January 30, 1965 — The New York Times publishes an editorial praising both Reiben and Hogan for acting "in the highest tradition of the bar." The editorial says that the case "provokes fresh doubt" about the validity of the death penalty and urges its abolition.

February 1, 1965 — Whitmore's former attorney, Leftow, and one of this current attorneys, Arthur H. Miller, reveal that Whitmore had been given "truth serum" (sodium amytal) at Bellevue Hospital and, while under the influence of the drug, had consistently maintained his innocence. The N.A.A.C.P. and ACLU ask Governor Nelson Rockefeller and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to investigate the circumstances that led to Whitmore's false confession in the Wylie-Hoffert case.

February 2, 1965 — A U.S. Justice Department spokesperson says the department is "following the situation closely."

February 4, 1965 — Rockefeller spurns the N.A.A.C.P. demand for an investigation.

February 11, 1965 — Reiben files a motion asking Justice Malbin to set aside Whitmore's conviction in the Borerro case on the grounds that police lacked probable cause to arrest Whitmore and that his confession, therefore, whether voluntary or involuntary, should have been suppressed at the trial. The motion states that Detective Aidala had testified before the grand jury that he arrested Whitmore on a Brooklyn street — a veritable concession that police lacked probable cause. The motion also states that, in an unrelated case, Detective Bulger had obtained a confession from 22-year-old David Coleman to the 1960 murder of a 77-year-old woman in Brooklyn — a crime for which Coleman is on death row.

February 14, 1965 — Koota agrees to reopen the Coleman case.

February 15, 1965 — Robles is indicted for the Wylie/Hoffert murders. Robles "maintains his innocence," according to his court-appointed attorney.

March 1, 1965 — Gerald Corbin, a juror in the Borrero case, testifies at a hearing before Justice Malbin on the motion for a new trial that "practically everyone" on the jury knew that Whitmore had been charged with the Wylie-Hoffert crime. According to Corbin, one of his fellow jurors stated, "This is nothing compared to what he is going to get in New York." Corbin also testifies that at least one juror "on more than one occasion" used racial slurs referring to the sexual proclivities of Negroes and Puerto Ricans. Whitmore, said the juror in question, was guilty of attempted rape because Negores are "like jackrabbits" and "got to have their intercourse all the time." An FBI report, which the prosecution had withheld at the trial, is introduced at the hearing. It states that the button Borrero ripped from her assailant's coat differed in size and color from the buttons on the tan poplin raincoat Whitmore was wearing when he was taken into custody.

March 2, 1965 — Koota concedes that Whitmore deserves a new trial in the Borrero case, but Malbin reserves ruling.

March 3, 1965 — At a hearing before Justice Dominic S. Rinaldi, before whom the Edmonds case is pending, defense lawyers move to suppress Whitmore's confession on the ground that police lacked probable cause to arrest him and that, in any event, the confession is unworthy of belief in view of Whitmore's false confession in the Wylie-Hoffert case. On the probable cause issue, Aidala testifies that he erred when he told the grand jury that he had arrested Whitmore on the street. In fact, Aidala now asserts, he merely asked Whitmore to go to the station, Whitmore "willingly agreed," and the arrest was not made until Borrero identified Whitmore.

March 8, 1965 — Patrolman Isola testifies before Rinaldi that he did not arrest Whitmore upon their initial encounter, five hours after the Borrero assault, because Whitmore "did not appear to be same man" he had seen fleeing the scene.

March 9, 1965 — Sergeant Collier, who took the initial report from Borrero, testifies that she did not mention the attempted rape but rather alleged only that her assailant "attempted to take her pocketbook."

March 19, 1965 — Justice Malbin finds that the jury in the Borrero case had been influenced by "prejudice and racial bias" and reverses Whitmore's conviction, granting him a new trial.

March 25, 1965 — DA Hogan dismisses first-degree murder charges against two drifters — James Stewart, 24, and R. L. Douglas, 32 — who had been charged with the hammer-slaying of John Walshinsky, a derelict — a crime to which Stewart and Douglas confessed. The men say that the confessions were beaten out of them.

March 26, 1965 — Rinaldi rules that Whitmore's confession to the Edmonds murder was voluntary and admissible. Rinaldi chastises Reiben for "talking to the newspapers" about the case.

April 2, 1965 — The N.A.A.C.P. reveals that Detective Bulger, in addition to his involvement in obtaining the dubious Coleman confession, also had been accused in another case of obtaining a confession by fraud from a man named Charles Everett. If Everett would admit the crime, Bulger allegedly promised to intercede with the victim to work out a light sentence. The victim in fact was dead. Everett was convicted of murder, but his conviction was later reversed.

April 12, 1965 — Whitmore's trial for the Edmonds slaying opens before an all-male blue-ribbon jury and Kings County Supreme Court Justice Dominic S. Rinaldi. (Blue-ribbon juries — criticized by liberal groups as self-righteous and conviction-prone — are composed of persons from high educational and economic levels and permitted in counties with more than a million population under a New York statute enacted in the 1930s.)

April 14, 1965 — Detective Joseph Di Pima testifies that Whitmore's confessions were voluntary, telling the jury, "All I had to say to him was: "What happened next George?"

April 15, 1965 — Whitmore's 46-year-old father, George Sr., suffers a heart attack in the courtroom.

April 19, 1965 — In view of the "the antipathy and antagonism" Justice Rinaldi has shown Reiben, he asks to withdraw from the Whitmore case, saying he can no longer effectively represent his client. Ranaldi denies the request.

April 21, 1965 — The prosecution rests.

April 23, 1965 — Whitmore testifies that Detective Aidala and Patrolman Frank Isola beat him.

April 28, 1965 — Prosecutor Sidney A. Lichtman tells the jury that the Wylie-Hoffert indictment is still pending in Manhattan. Reiben argues, "How can the Wylie-Hoffert confession be bad and the others good beyond a reasonable doubt, given the same day to the same detectives" Is it possible for Wylie-Hoffert to be phoney while the others are not?"

April 30, 1965 — Jury foreman Harold B. Hacker tells Rinaldi that the jury is hopelessly deadlocked, with two or three members in favor of conviction and a like number in favor of acquittal. The others, says Hacker, are "confused" as a result of the discredited confession in the Wylie-Hoffert case. Rinaldi declares a mistrial.

May 4, 1965 — DA Hogan formally dismisses the Wylie-Hoffert indictment pending against Whitmore in Manhattan.

May 5, 1965 — DA Koota says his office will again try Whitmore for the Borrero attempted assault and rape in Brooklyn.

May 13, 1965 — The New York Senate by a vote of forty-seven to nine approves a bill abolishing the death penalty for all murders except those of peace officers or prison guards and murders committed during an escape.

May 19, 1965 — The New York Assembly passes the abolition bill by a vote of seventy-eight to sixty-seven.

May 26, 1965 — Justice Vincent D. Damiani of Kings County Supreme Court grants a motion by Reiben requiring Koota to bring Whitmore to trial for the Edmonds murder before retrying him for the lesser crime against Borrero. "To permit the defendant to be tried again on the lesser charge of attempted rape before his trial on the more serious indictment for murder will result in further publicity and substantially increase the difficulty in selecting an impartial jury in the murder case," Damiani writes.

June 1, 1965 — Rockefeller signs the abolition bill.

June 3, 1965 — Koota argues before George J. Beldock, presiding justice of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, that Damiani had no authority to exert control over the prosecution calendar. Beldock directs Damiani to explain more fully why Whitmore should not be tried first for the Borrero case.

June 8, 1965 — The Appellate Division unanimously holds that Whitmore may be tried first in the Borrero case.

July 15, 1965 — Governor Nelson Rockefeller signs legislation abolishing blue-ribbon juries.

October 14, 1965 — Robles goes on trial before a jury and New York County Supreme Court Justice Irwin D. Davidson for the Wylie-Hoffert murders.

October 18, 1965 — Prosecutors disclose that friends of Robles cooperated in the surreptitious recording of conversations in which he admitted the double murder. When confronted with the tapes after his arrest, Robles "freely and voluntarily confessed" in the presence of eight police officers, including Thomas J. Cavanagh Jr., the commander of the Manhattan detective squad.

December 1, 1965 — The jury finds Robles guilty.

January 11, 1966 — Justice Davidson sentences Robles to life in prison.

March 22, 1966 — Whitmore's retrial for the attempted rape and assault of Borrero opens before a Kings County jury and Supreme Court Justice Aaron F. Goldstein.

March 23, 1966 — After Detective Aidala testifies that Whitmore's confession to the Borrero crime was voluntary, Reiben asks, "Did anyone coerce or force him into making the Wylie-Hoffert confession?" Goldstein immediately dismissed the jury and then upbraided Reiben for his "intemperate question." Out of the jury's presence, Reiben labels Aidala "the world's biggest liar," and asks Goldstein, "How can I achieve justice unless I can establish this?" Goldstein said he would reserve ruling on the admissibility of the evidence resulting to Whitmore's confession in the Wylie-Hoffert case.

March 24, 1966 — Goldstein holds evidence of the Wylie-Hoffert confession inadmissible. Reiben waives further examination of witnesses, declaring that Whitmore cannot receive a fair trial absent the Wylie-Hoffert evidence. Both sides rest.

March 25, 1966 — Whitmore is convicted for the second time in the Borrero case.

May 27, 1966 — Goldstein sentences Whitmore to five to ten years in prison for the attempted rape and assault. With time off for good behavior and credit for 25 months already served, Whitmore is eligible for release in 15 months.

June 13, 1966 — U.S. Supreme Court holds in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), that police must warn suspects of their rights to remain silent and consult with a lawyer before submitting to questioning.

June 30, 1966 — On Koota's motion, Kings County Supreme Court Justice Hyman Barshay dismisses the indictment against Whitmore in the Edmonds case.

July 12, 1966 — Barshay sets bail at $5,000 for Whitmore pending appeal of his conviction in the Borrero case.

July 13, 1966 — Two years, eleven weeks, and three days after his arrest — 810 days in all — Whitmore is released on bail guaranteed by radio station WMCA.

April 10, 1967 — The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court reverses Whitmore's conviction in the Borrero case and grants him yet another trial, holding that "under the peculiar circumstances of this case, it was prejudicial error for the trial court to refuse to allow cross examination with reference to all of the defendant's statements to the police."

April 13, 1967 — Koota says that "in the interests of justice" Whitmore will be tried a third time for the Borrero crime.

May 15, 1967 — Whitmore's third trial opens before Justice Julius Helfand in Kings County Supreme Court and jury selection is completed. In view of the Miranda ruling, the confession is inadmissible. The case now rests entirely on Borrero's identification.

May 16, 1967 — Both sides rest.

May 17, 1967 — The jury returns a verdict of guilty. Whitmore is taken into custody for a psychiatric examination as required by state law. If he law did not so require, Helfand says, he would have continued Whitmore's bail.

June 8, 1967 — Whitmore is again sentenced to five to ten years in prison.

June 15, 1968 — Kings County Supreme Court Justice Philip M. Kleinfeld grants a motion to release Whitmore on $5,000 bail. The additional time he has spent in custody following his third conviction in the Borrero case has added 395 days of incarceration to the 810 days he served pending his first two trials and his first release on bail, bringing Whitmore's total incarceration time to two years, fifteen weeks, and five days.

March 27, 1968 — Borrero breaks into tears on the witness stand, and shouts, "All I know is, George Whitmore attacked me that night. . . . I know it, he knows it, and God knows it."

July 25, 1968 — The Appellate Division holds Whitmore's latest appeal in abeyance pending a hearing before Justice Helfand on the validity of the in-court identification by Borrero in view of the fact that her initial identification of him was at a one-man show-up through a peephole.

November 5, 1968 — Eugene Gold is elected to succeed Koota as Brooklyn DA.

April 8, 1969 — Justice Helfand upholds the validity of the identification, saying there was "an unmistakable ring of truth to her testimony."

July 28, 1970 — The Supreme Court's Appellate Division unanimously affirms Whitmore's third conviction in the Borrero case.

September 24, 1970 — New York Court of Appeals affirms the conviction of Robles in the Wylie-Hoffert case.

April 21, 1971 — The New York Court of Appeals by a four-to-three vote upholds the conviction without an explanatory opinion.

February 28, 1972 — The U.S. Supreme Court denies certiorari in the case and Whitmore is taken into custody.

December 22, 1972 — Brooklyn DA Eugene Gold announces he is reopening the case in view of an affidavit obtained by journalist Selwyn Raab from Borrero's sister, Celeste Viruet, who lived near Borrero at the time of the assault but has since returned to her native Puerto Rico. The affidavit states that before Borrero identified Whitmore police had shown her a photo array and she had identified another person as her assailant.

March 8, 1973 — CBS airs "The Marcus-Nelson Murders," a three-hour film based on the Wylie-Hoffert murders with Telly Savalas staring as Detective Lieutenant Theo Kojack (later shortened to Kojak) — a character loosely based on Detective Cavanagh, who had been instrumental in developing the evidence that the murders were committed not by Whitmore but by Robles.

April 10, 1973 — Whitmore is released by Supreme Court Justice Irwin Brownstein at the request of Gold based on "fresh new evidence" indicating that Borrero's identification of his was 'suspect." Gold tells Brownstein, "If in fact he is guilty of these charges, surely his debt to society has been paid by his incarceration. If he is innocent, I pray that my action today will in some measure repay society's debt to him." Whitmore's most recent incarceration totals 406 days, bringing his total time behind bars to 1,216 days.

October 2, 1988 — The New York Times publishes an article by Selwyn Raab, who interviewed Robles in light of a forthcoming pardon hearing. Raab quotes Robles as saying that he broke into the Wylie-Hoffert apartment believing no one was home. He was looking for money to support his $15-a-day heroin habit, but when he encountered Wylie he raped her. Then he bound her and was preparing to leave when Hoffert came home. He took $30 from her purse and bound her as well. As he again prepared to leave, Hoffert said, "I"m going to remember you for the police. You"re going to jail." When she said that, Robles continued, "I just went bananas. My head just exploded. I got to kill. You"re mind just races and races. It's almost like you"re not you." He said he clubbed both women unconscious with pop bottles, then slashed and stabbed them with knives he found in their kitchen.

August 2, 1996 — Thomas J. Cavanagh Jr. dies in retirement in Margate, Florida.

Case Data

Crime date: April 23, 1964
Jurisdiction: Kings County, New York
Crime: Attempted Rape
Related crimes: Murder on August 28, 1963, of Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert in New York County and murder on April 14, 1964, of Minnie Edmonds in Kings County.
Age at time of crime: 19
Gender: Male
Race: Black
Arrest date: April 24, 1964
Victim: Elba Borrero
Victim's occupation: Practical nurse
Victim's gender: Female
Victim's ethnicity: Puerto Rican
Victim's age: 21
How defendant became a suspect: Found loitering near the crime scene
Principal evidence of defendant's guilt: Confession
Principal defense: Confession extracted by force
Type of trial: Jury (tried four times by juries; one trial ended with a hung jury, the others with convictions).
Conviction date: November 18, 1964 (first conviction), March 25, 1966 (second conviction), May 17, 1967 (third conviction).
Convicted of: Attempted rape
Sentence: Not sentenced following first conviction. (The judge delayed sentencing pending Whitmore's New York County trial for the potential capital offense of killing Wylie and Hoffert.) Sentenced to five to ten years in prison following both the second and third convictions.
Appellate record: People v. Whitmore, 45 Misc. 2d 506 (1965), People v. Whitmore, 45 Misc. 2d 506 (1965), People v. Whitmore, 278 N.Y.S.2d 706 (1967).
Basis for exoneration: Affidavit obtained by journalist Selwyn Raab discrediting the Borrero's identification of Whitmore.
Legal form of exoneration: Conviction vacated
Causes of wrongful conviction: False confession, erroneous eyewitness identification.
Release date: April 10, 1973
Days of incarceration: 1,216 (from his arrest on April 24, 1964, until his release on bond on July 13, 1966, and from the revocation of his bond on February 28, 1972, until his exoneration on April 10, 1973).
Prior record: None
Compensation: None — see Whitmore v. New York, 541 F. Supp. 564 (1982).

— Rob Warden