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United States v. Ellis

decided: March 13, 1979.

ELLIS, JOHN, APPELLANT IN NO. 78-1555 (D.C. CRIM. NO. 77-00428-01); CARTY, JAMES, APPELLANT IN NO. 78-1556 (D.C. CRIM. NO. 77-00428-02) CURLEY, JAMES, APPELLANT IN NO. 78-1557 (D.C. CRIM. NO. 77-00428-03); JONES, WILLIAM, APPELLANT IN NO. 78-1558 (D.C. CRIM. NO. 77-00428-04); CROWN, JAMES, APPELLANT IN NO. 78-1559 (D.C. CRIM. NO. 77-00428-05); MCMILLAN, ROSEBOROUGH, APPELLANT IN NO. 78-1560 (D.C. CRIM. NO. 77-00428-06)


Before Gibbons, Van Dusen and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.

Author: Gibbons


The appellants, six members of the Homicide Bureau of the Philadelphia Police Department, appeal from judgments of sentence following their conviction by a jury of conspiracy to deprive Philadelphia residents of federal civil rights in violation of 18 U.S.C. ยง 241. We affirm.


Sometime in the mid-1970's Radamas Santiago purchased a home at 4419 North 4th Street in the Feltonville section of Philadelphia. The Santiagos had difficulties with some of their new neighbors. In late September, 1975, the Santiago car was firebombed. A few days later, on October 5, 1975, at 3:25 a. m., while the Santiagos were asleep in their home, their house was firebombed. Radamas and one of his sons, Carlos, survived. Radamas' wife, three of his children, and Luis Caracini, a guest in the house, perished in the fire. The six appellants, along with other Philadelphia police officers, were assigned to investigate this arson murder.

Sleeping on the front porch of the Santiago home when the house was firebombed was Nelson Garcia, a fourteen year old Puerto Rican boy, a friend of the Santiagos. His hair aflame, Garcia fled from the house, looking for a fire alarm. Garcia saw one Robert Wilkinson in an automobile stopped near the Santiago home. Because Wilkinson was the first person he saw, Garcia assumed, contrary to fact, that Wilkinson had started the fire. When the investigating Philadelphia police officers interviewed him, Garcia accused Wilkinson, who was promptly arrested. Admitted to Temple University Hospital, Garcia was questioned further, and elaborated that he had seen Wilkinson throw a bottle with a burning cloth onto the Santiago porch. Wilkinson was taken to the Philadelphia Police Administration Building (PAB), where he was questioned by several of the defendants. Eventually he signed a confession to a crime which he did not commit. Wilkinson was tried and convicted in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court on five counts of murder. Garcia was the only alleged eye witness to testify, falsely, against him. Garcia had been influenced to do so by hearing that Wilkinson had confessed. Eventually the person who actually had thrown the firebomb, David McGinnis, acknowledged his guilt. Wilkinson's conviction was reversed, after he had spent fifteen months in jail.

An investigation by federal authorities into the efforts of these six Philadelphia police officers to procure the evidence which led to that conviction resulted in their indictment for conspiracy, under color of Pennsylvania law, to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate Robert Wilkinson, Ronald Hanley, David McGinnis, John McCandless, Vincent Cucinotta, Christine Wilkinson and Judith Cucinotta in the enjoyment and exercise of rights secured to them by the Constitution and laws of the United States. The named victims of the conspiracy are all persons whom the Philadelphia Police subjected to detention and coercive interrogation in their effort to build a case against Wilkinson. The evidence presented by the government suggests that the methods of investigation used by the defendant homicide detectives were as barbaric as they were misdirected. With respect to each victim of the conspiracy the jury could have found as outlined below.

A. The Wilkinsons

Wilkinson was twenty-five years old. He had attended special classes for slow learners throughout his education, which ended at age sixteen, and was essentially illiterate. He arrived at the PAB with his wife, Christine, shortly after 5:00 a. m. They were separated and both were detained. He was placed in a small windowless interrogation room, containing a bolted-down steel chair. Defendants Jones and Crown questioned him about the firebombing, and he denied having anything to do with it. He told the detectives that he and his wife had been out celebrating their anniversary, and that he first saw the fire upon returning from an errand to get cigarettes for her. He immediately drove around the corner and set off a fire alarm. After Wilkinson had gone over his statement four or five times, maintaining his innocence throughout, defendants Jones and Crown were joined in the interrogation room by defendant McMillan. The latter told Wilkinson that there were three or four counts of murder against him and that the police had an eyewitness. McMillan then punched Wilkinson in the chest. As Wilkinson fell to the floor from the blow, McMillan, who then weighed over three hundred pounds, slapped him across the side of his face with tremendous force. As McMillan left the room, he said to Jones and Crown that if they needed him he would return and deliver a punch which would stop Wilkinson's heart.

After McMillan's departure, Crown and Jones demanded that Wilkinson execute a form consenting to a polygraph test. Since he could not read, Wilkinson asked that his wife be allowed to read it. Crown and Jones refused, and threatened to take away the Wilkinsons' five month old child if he did not sign. Finding that threat credible, he signed.

Wilkinson was taken to a polygraph room in the basement of the PAB. Throughout the polygraph test he continued to maintain his innocence. After the test, however, Crown and Jones began a systematic beating in an effort to coerce a confession from Wilkinson which would confirm Garcia's false eyewitness identification. Although he continued to maintain his innocence during the early stages of the beating, eventually Wilkinson's resistance crumbled, and at 11:05 a. m. he signed a confession to a crime he did not commit.

In the confession Wilkinson supplied details which he could not have known. He said that the firebomb which he threw had been made from a Maxwell House coffee jar and a burning wick.*fn1 Wilkinson confessed that one Ronald Hanley supplied the bomb, and that the instigation to throw it came from Hanley and two other men.

Corroboration of Wilkinson's severe beating was furnished by a prison doctor and a guard, who saw his injuries, by prison photographs of abrasions and cuts, and by neighbors who attended his arraignment in the courtroom at the PAB and observed that he could hardly walk without assistance.

B. Hanley

Ronald Hanley, the man whom Wilkinson's coerced confession implicated, was a Democratic Committeeman in the Santiagos' neighborhood. He was arrested and brought to the PAB with David McGinnis, a neighborhood youth, around 8:00 a. m. on October 5. Those arrests did not result from any information obtained from Garcia or Wilkinson, but from information obtained from a neighborhood resident implicating the pair in the firebombing of the Santiago automobile ten days earlier. Thus Hanley, like Wilkinson, came to the PAB as a prime suspect. When questioned, however, he initially denied knowledge about the firebombing of the house. He was then taken to the polygraph room for testing, and again maintained his innocence.

About 11:00 a. m. Hanley was returned from the polygraph area to an interrogation room where he was interrogated by defendants Ellis, Carty, Curley and an unidentified co-conspirator. Hanley was subjected to a prolonged series of beatings during which his nose was lacerated. In one instance a kick or punch caused him to lose control of his bowels. He was made to sit in his soiled clothing for close to an hour before being taken to a rest room and allowed to clean himself.*fn2 The interrogation followed the well known "Mutt and Jeff" routine in which one officer (Kuhar) would ask questions in a relatively friendly manner, and the others would, if he was unsuccessful, return and administer physical punishment. At 10:45 p. m. on October 5, almost fifteen hours after he had arrived at the PAB, Hanley signed a four page confession which tied in neatly with that obtained from Wilkinson some twelve hours earlier. To the extent that it admitted participation in the firebombing of the Santiago house, the confession was true. But it confirmed that Hanley had supplied the firebomb to Wilkinson. This was false, for Wilkinson was a non-participant, and David McGinnis had actually thrown the bomb.*fn3

Corroboration of Hanley's several beatings was supplied by prison photographs showing abrasions and cuts and by a prison doctor who opined that he had suffered a trauma to his chest which resulted in a spot on a lung x-ray taken shortly after he was jailed.

C. McGinnis

David McGinnis, too, arrived at the PAB as a prime suspect because of the information the police had received about the burning of the Santiago car. During his interrogation he was beaten by Carty and by McMillan. On October 5, he signed a confession that he had, with Hanley, firebombed the Santiago automobile. He did not, however, admit to any role in the firebombing of the Santiago home.

Many months later, after Wilkinson had been convicted of murder in Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, McGinnis confessed. He pleaded guilty to federal charges growing out of the firebombing conspiracy and was sentenced to twenty-two years incarceration. McGinnis testified in the federal trial of Ronald Hanley, and in this trial, that he and ...

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