Joseph Briggs

Dubious eyewitnesses sent Joseph Briggs to death row

Joseph Briggs was sentenced to death in 1905 for the murder of a storekeeper, Hans Peterson, during an armed robbery the previous year on West Lake Street in Chicago.

Briggs was identified at the trial by two eyewitnesses — William Portee, an employee of the shop who was shot and wounded during the robbery, and Albert Piemental, a boy of about 12. The only other inculpatory evidence was the testimony of a regular customer at the store, Matilda Peterson (no relation to the murder victim), who claimed to have seen Briggs in the store the day before the robbery getting change for a $10 bill.

Questionable identifications

Briggs, a father of two employed by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, was arrested in a saloon near the store shortly after the crime and taken the next day to Portee's hospital room. Portee failed to identify Briggs at the hospital and failed again later at a coroner's inquest. At the trial five months later, however, Portee testified he was certain Briggs was the man.

The Piemental boy also had failed to identify Briggs initially, but on the stand replied, “Yes, sir,” when asked by the prosecutor, “Are you positive he is the man that shot Peterson?”

Matilda Patterson, whose testimony was deemed relevant on the theory that Briggs might have requested change for the $10 to case the store, had positively identified Briggs at the police station, but only after asking a desk sergeant, “Which one is Briggs?”

At the trial, Briggs took the stand and vehemently denied having anything to do with the crime. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime; neither the murder weapon nor cash from the robbery was recovered. Several witnesses claimed Briggs had been in the saloon at the time of the crime, as fixed by the prosecution witnesses. The prosecution did not question the truthfulness of the alibi witnesses, but rather advised the jury to take into account the difference in timepieces and the possibility that witnesses on either side might be mistaken about the precise time.

The appeal

Briggs was scheduled to be hanged on June 16, 1905, and the trial judge gave defense counsel until the day before to file an appeal — which would result in an automatic stay of execution. When nothing had been filed by June 15, the trial court granted a one-week reprieve and appointed a “special counsel and amicus curice” to file the appeal. After a brief additional time extension, the appeal was filed and the execution stayed pending its resolution.

On December 20, 1905, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial —Briggs v. People, 219 Ill. 330 — holding that the trial court erred in refusing to allow the defense to introduce prior inconsistent statements of William Portee, in permitting the prosecution to ask leading questions of Albert Piemental, and in barring impeachment of Matilda Patterson's in-court identification.

At retrial, Briggs was acquitted.

— Rob Warden