Joseph M. Majczek

Perjury led to Joseph Majczek's wrongful conviction for the murder of a Chicago policeman in 1933

A crusade by the Chicago Times — predecessor of the Chicago Sun-Times — led to the 1944 exoneration of Joseph M. Majczek, 11 years after he had been wrongfully convicted of the murder of Chicago Police Officer William D. Lundy. The case became the basis of a popular 1948 movie entitled "Call Northside 777" starring James Stewart.

The story began unfolding the morning of October 10, 1944, when a classified advertisement appeared in the Times: "$5,000 reward for killers of Officer Lundy on Dec. 9, 1932 Call Gro. 1758, 12-7 p.m." A cub reporter noticed the ad and called it to the attention of the city editor, who asked a seasoned police reporter, James McGuire, to find out what the ad was about. From clippings in the Times morgue, McGuire learned that Officer Lundy had been gunned down on the specified date and that Majczek, 24, and Theodore Marcinkiewicz, 25, had been convicted of the crime in 1933 in the Cook County Superior Court.

One eyeball

The convictions — which had been affirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court, People v. Majcek, 360 Ill. 261 (1935) — rested primarily upon the testimony of a single eyewitness, Vera Walush, who was referred to throughout the legal proceedings as the operator of a "delicatessen" where the crime occurred. The defendants presented an alibi defense. Two relatives and a deliveryman placed Majczek at home at the time of the crime. Four witnesses placed Marcinkiewicz at his home at that precise time, and two others placed him a little later at a neighborhood saloon where he could not have been had he taken part in the crime.

When McGuire called Gro. 1758, a woman answered and identified herself in broken English as Tillie Majczek, Joseph's mother. McGuire realized he had material for the front page when he elicited that Mrs. Majczek had scrubbed floors on her hands and knees for more than a decade, six nights a week, at Commonwealth Edison Company to save the $5,000 she now offered for information about who killed Officer Lundy.

'A nice little human interest story'

Like many Chicago reporters of the era, McGuire did not write stories himself. The writing was left to a rewrite bank, comprising a half dozen or so facile writers who began work in the afternoon and banged out most of the local copy for the next morning's paper. One rewriteman, who wandered into the Times newsroom a little early on October 10, 1944, was John J. McPhaul. The city editor, Karin Walsh, called him over and said, "Mac's got a nice little human interest story."

"I wrote a story making the 60-year-old scrubwoman the heroine, tossed in a couple of lines from Kipling's 'Mother o' Mine,' and figured that was that," McPhaul recounted. That, however, was not that.

Curious leniency

McGuire suspected that something was amiss in the case. It was curious, he told McPhaul, that Majczek and Marcinkiewicz had not received the usual sentence for murder of a policeman — death in the electric chair. That their lives had been spared, said McGuire, might indicate the judge had doubted their guilt.

On October 11, the day after the jointly bylined story appeared in the Times, McPhaul read a thirty-page statement of facts that Majczek had typed in prison. Had McPhaul not been aware of McGuire's suspicion he might well have disregarded a passage in which Majczek asserted that, after the jury found him guilty, the trial judge, Charles P. Molthrop, took him into his chambers and promised him a new trial, saying he thought there had been a miscarriage of justice. Moreover, wrote Majczek, there had been a witness to the conversation — James Zagata, a coal truckdriver who, having just made a delivery to Vera Walush, had witnessed the crime and knew that the wrong men had been convicted.

New witness found

It seemed preposterous to McPhaul that a judge would host a private conversation with a convicted cop-killer. And, if true, why had the judge not fulfilled the promise? Molthrop could not be asked because he died in 1935. Despite the dim prospect that anything would come of pursuing the angle, McPhaul and McGuire nonetheless thought it worth tracking down Zagata. McGuire found him, still employed as a coal truckdriver and, as luck would have it, most cooperative. Zagata fully corroborated Majczek's account of the conversation in Molthrop's chambers, as the Times explained, in the classic style of the era, on October 12:

"Is Mrs. Majczek's battle for Joe's vindication based on anything more than a mother's blind faith in a son? Is there anything in the history of Policeman William D. Lundy's murder or Majczek's trial that might indicate she has sound reasons for believing in her son's innocence?

"The Times has undertaken an investigation to determine whether there are any facts — hidden or overlooked — that may be regarded as supporting the mother's contention?

"As a beginning, the Times is able to reveal today that Timesmen have obtained corroboration of an astounding statement by Majczek that the trial judge who sentenced him to serve 99 years doubted his guilt.

"The statement was given to the Times by James Zagata, coal truckdriver. It is his first public statement on the case since the trial in November 1933, and his first public disclosure that he believes Majczek is innocent.

"Zagata was in the delicatessen owned by Mrs. Vera Walush on the afternoon of December 9, 1932, when Policeman Lundy was shot and killed by two holdup men.

"Zagata viewed Majczek at a police station shortly after the latter's arrest. The witness said he had not been able to see the faces of the killers clearly and could not make an identification. He repeated this at the trial of Majczek and Theodore Marcinkiewicz."

Subsequently, Zagata told the Times, he pondered the matter and concluded that neither of the convicted men fitted in with his recollection of the killers. He said he was particularly sure that both bandits were much taller than Majczek, a short-statured man.

A few days after the verdict, the truck driver said, he was summoned to the chambers of Judge Molthrop. The judge, he said, questioned him anew about his identification.

"I told the judge," Zagata said, "that I was now sure that neither of the men had been involved in the murder."

According to Zagata, Judge Molthrop replied: "I am sure there has been a miscarriage of justice concerning the identification of both boys. I am going to see that they get a new trial . . . "

'Delicatessen' was a speakeasy

In successive days, the Times disclosed that Vera Walush, whose testimony had been the sole evidence against Majczek and the principal evidence against Marcinkiewicz, initially had told police, after viewing the suspects in a lineup, that they were not the men. The paper also reported that Walush's "delicatessen" actually was a speakeasy, that Walush had been threatened with arrest for bootlegging if she refused to testify against Majczek and Marcinkiewicz, and that the reason Judge Molthrop had failed to grant the defendants new trials was that he had been warned by prosecutors that granting a new trial would end his career in politics.

There invariably is political pressure to solve a police officer's murder, but it was particularly strong in Officer Lundy's case. The same week he was killed, there were five other murders in Chicago — all unsolved. The Century of Progress exposition, envisioned by its boosters as a pivotal event in the Second City's emergence from the Depression, was scheduled to open in just five months. A delegation of businessmen, worried that the international perception of Chicago as a place of rampant violence would hurt attendance at the exposition and discourage tourism in the meantime, met with Mayor Anton Cermak to demand action. The mayor had been elected in 1931 on a promise to clean up the city's reputation for lawlessness. After meeting with the business delegation, he called a press conference and, the police superintendent at his side, announced — these were his very words — "a war on crime."

Coerced testimony

As McPhaul and McGuire dug into the case, they learned how Majczek and Marcinkiewicz had come to be suspects in the first place. Although Vera Walush at first told police she had no idea who the killers were, after several hours of interrogation she said one them could have been a man she knew only as Ted. When police discovered that Theordore Marcinkiewicz lived in the neighborhood, he became a prime suspect, but he was nowhere to be found. Two weeks after the crime, by which time it was well known on the street that he was being sought, a bootlegger who lived in the neighborhood was arrested with a case of whisky in his car. In exchange for not being charged, he told police that Marcinkiewicz had been staying with the Majczek family. When police went to the Majczek home on December 22, 1932, they did not find Marcinkiewicz — but did find Joseph Majczek, whom they took into custody.

Majczek had asserted in the typed statement of facts that he provided the Times that Vera Walush, after viewing him in two separate lineups on December 22, had stated unequivocally that he was not one of the killers. The next day, however, something apparently happened to improve her memory and she positively identified him. The police thereupon wrote a report falsely stating that Majczek had been arrested on December 23, the day Walush had identified him. When Marcinkiewicz surrendered exactly a month later, on January 23, 1933, she positively identified him as well.

Times hires a lawyer

Searching through records at the police warehouse, McGuire found the original arrest report, corroborating Majczek's contention that he had been arrested on December 22. When the State's Attorney's Office refused to reopen the case based on McGuire and McPhaul's dramatic disclosures, the Times hired a well-known lawyer to seek a pardon for Majczek, ignoring the similarly situated Marcinkiewicz. The lawyer, Walker Butler, at the time was a Democratic member of the Illinois Senate and, certainly not coincidentally, a supporter and confidant of Governor Dwight H. Green.

In addition to claims based on the Times disclosures that Majczek appeared to have been framed, Butler developed a substantial claim that Majczek's trial attorney, W.W. O'Brien, had performed incompetently. Two witnesses of dubious credibility provided damaging testimony against Marcinkiewicz. One of these, Bessie Barron, claimed that a few days before the crime Marcinkiewicz had told her "he was going to make the joint," meaning Vera Walush's establishment. The other, Bruno Uginchus, testified that the evening after the Lundy murder Marcinkiewicz told him he "had a little trouble." Although there was nothing to connect these statements to Majczek, O'Brien failed to object to their admission. O'Brien, of course, also failed to cross examine Vera Walush based on Majczek's claim that he had been arrested on December 22, when she had failed to identify him. These issues had not been raised on appeal because O'Brien handled the appeal.

Full pardon

On August 15, 1945, based on Bulter's petition, Governor Green granted Majczek a full pardon based on innocence. Marcinkiewicz, a seemingly forgotten man, remained in prison with no one championing his cause. Shortly before Green left office in 1949, he offered to commute Marcinkiewicz's life sentence to seventy-five years, which would have made him eligible for parole in 1958. Marcinkiewicz indignantly turned down the offer. He was wise to do so, for he would be legally exonerated through a state habeas corpus proceeding in 1950.

The Illinois legislature approved special appropriations to compensate both men for the time they spent in prison — $24,000 for Majczek and $35,000 for Marcinkiewicz — but again there no calls from the press for reforms that might prevent such miscarriages of justice in the future, or to sanction those who framed the two innocent men — a head-in-the-sand syndrome that persisted into the twilight years of the Twentieth Century.

— Rob Warden. This account is based substantially on information Jack McPhaul provided in interviews with Warden in 1980 and 1983.