Valentine Harpstrite

After the co-defendants recanted the authorities turned to snitches

Valentine Harpstrite (a.k.a. Harpstreith) was convicted of murder in 1929 in St. Clair County based solely on the testimony of two jailhouse informants. Sentenced to life in prison, he was released two decades later after — but not because — the informants recanted. Nineteen years later he received a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence. The victim, Justus Nungesser, was shot to death in a cornfield on his farm near the town of Muscoutah on September 9, 1928. An itinerant laborer heard the shot and alerted Frank Grimmer, Nungesser's neighbor, who ran to the cornfield where he found Nungesser gasping for breath. Before Nungesser lapsed into a coma from which he did not recover, he told Grimmer "that a detective came out of the cornfield and shot him." Harpstrite was implicated in the crime several weeks later, based on alleged confessions by two co-defendants, Raymond Rensing and Elmer Lindner. All three were indicted for murder, but before their joint trial in April 1929, Rensing and Lindner recanted, claiming their confessions had been beaten out of them. The confessions were admitted against them, but not against Harpstrite. To convict him, Assistant State's Attorney Curt C. Lindauer relied on statements from two jailhouse snitches, Charles Pillow and George Shelton.

Several years later, Pillow and Shelton recanted, saying Lindauer and St. Clair Sheriff Charles Aherns had promised to arrange for their release from jail in return for their testimony implicating Harpstrite. After the trial, the court record of the case disappeared, and there was no appeal.

Harpstrite was paroled in 1949, and pardoned by Governor Samuel H. Shapiro in 1968.

Case Chronology

September 9, 1928 — Justus Nungesser, an eccentric bachelor farmer about sixty-five years old, is shot several times while chopping wood on his farm near Muscoutah in St. Clair County, Illinois. An itinerant laborer hears the shot and alerts a neighbor of Nungesser's, Frank Grimmer, who runs to the cornfield and finds Nungesser gasping for breath. Before lapsing into a coma from which he does not recover, Nungesser tells Grimmer that he was shot by two strangers.

November 29, 1928 — Harpstrite, twenty-four-year-old operator of a 'soft-drink parlor' (euphemism for a bar operating in violation of the Eighteenth Amendment) in the town of New Baden, which in Clinton County (adjoining St. Clair County), is arrested for bootlegging, fined $300, and sentenced to ten days in the county jail.

December 5, 1928 — Elmer Linder is arrested in Clinton County and confesses to Sheriff Joseph E. Ragen and State's Attorney Hugh Murray that he committed the crime with Harpstrite and Raymond Rensing, a New Baden coal miner.

December 6, 1928 — Linder, Harpstrite, and Rensing are interrogated by at the St. Clair County Jail in Bellville. Linder and Rensing confess to Sheriff Charles Aherns, but Harpstrite insists he is innocent.

April 19, 1929 — Sheriff Aherns allegedly offers to release two St. Clair County Jail inmates, Charles F. Pillow and George Shelton, if they will testify falsely that Harpstrite and Rensing made statements while in jail implicating themselves in the Nungesser murder. (Linder and Rensing have by now recanted, claiming that their confessions were physically coerced and that they were false.)

May 10, 1929 — Harpstrite (whose name was misspelled in official records as Harpstreith) is convicted of murder along with Rensing and Linder. Harpstrite and Rensing are sentenced to life, Linder to only fourteen years in prison.

February 6, 1935 — Harpstrite's first application for executive clemency is denied.

June 27, 1946 — Harpstrite's second application for executive clemency is denied.

July 1, 1949 — Harpstrite is released on parole.

July 6, 1954 — Harpstrite is discharged from parole.

July 26, 1954 — Governor William G. Stratton restores Harpstrite's citizenship rights.

July 9, 1959 — Illinois General Assembly amends the Court of Claims Act to create an obligation on the part of the state to compensate wrongfully convicted persons, the prerequisite being a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence.

December 30, 1968 — Governor Samuel H. Shapiro grants Harpstrite a pardon based on innocence.

May 8, 1975 — Illinois Court of Claims rejects Harpstrite's claim for compensation totaling $35,000, holding that 1959 statute was not retroactive; to be eligible for compensation the claimant must have served at least part of the sentence after the date of the statute's enactment.

Case Data

Crime date: May 6, 1928
Jurisdiction: St. Clair County, Illinois
Crime: Murder
Related crime(s): None
Age: 24 (born January 9, 1904, in Salisbury, Missouri)
Gender: Male
Race or ethnicity: White
Occupation: Operator of a ’soft-drink parlor? (euphemism for a tavern operated in violation of the Eighteenth Amendment)
Prior record: None
Arrest date: December 4, 1928
Victim: Justus Nungesser
Victim’s gender: Male
Victim’s race: White
Victim’s age: About 65
Victim’s occupation: Farmer
How defendant became a suspect: Implicated by confession of Elmer Linder and Raymond Rensing, who became his co-defendants.
Principal evidence of defendant’s guilt: Testimony of two in-custody informants, George Shelton and Charles Pillow, who claimed to have heard Harpstrite and Rensing talking in the St. Clair County Jail about how they "had killed the old man.? (The confessions of Linder and Rensing, which they recanted and claimed had been beaten out of them, were not admitted into evidence against Harpstrite.)
Principal defense: Harpstrite took the stand and denied involvement in the crime. (He had planned to rely heavily on the fact that Grimmer stated that Nungesser told him the killers were strangers, but Nungesser knew Harpstrite well. The trial judge, Henry G. Miller, held, however, that Grimmer’s claim was hearsay and did not fall within the dying-declaration to the hearsay rule because Nungesser had not known he was dying when he made the statement.)
Type of trial: Jury
Conviction date: May 10, 1929
Convicted of: Murder
Sentence: Life
Appellate record: No appeal
Basis for exoneration: Recantation of jailhouse informants
Legal form of exoneration: Pardon based on innocence by Governor Sam Shapiro
Release date: July 1, 1949
Exoneration date: December 30, 1968
Days of incarceration: 6,417
Prior felony record: None
Post-exoneration felony record: None
Compensation: None

— Rob Warden