Moving On: A Tale of Being Young & Dumb & Black in America

WhitmoreGeorge Whitmore, Jr. was standing in front of a Laundromat on Sutter Avenue just off of Amboy Street in Brooklyn. He was talking to a patrolman named Isola for the second day in a row. Only this time the patrolman arrived flanked by a detective, one who kept insisting Whitmore take a ride with them downtown.

Whitmore stood 5’5, 19, dark-skinned with pockmarked acne. He had been living in the Brownsville section of East Brooklyn for two years now … first with relatives, then on his own.

Whitmore was escorted to the 73rd Precinct, where he was asked to stand in front of an eyehole and repeat the following: “I’m gonna rape you, lady. I’m gonna rape you, and then I’m gonna kill you.” Unbeknownst to Whitmore, there was a sexual assault victim standing on the opposite side of that wall, and she emerged feigning hysterics, identifying Whitmore as the man who had assaulted her. Whitmore was held over for questioning, a 24-hour interrogation during which he was denied the right to an attorney, along with ongoing requests to submit his answers via polygraph.

At some point it became apparent that Whitmore was not only being questioned in connection with an attempted rape, but also a trio of homicides, two of which had occurred in an apartment on the Upper East Side. Whitmore maintained his innocence, insisting that not only had he never been to the Upper East Side, but that he and several others could account for his whereabouts throughout the day in question. Whitmore could be sure of it, he contended, because the murders took place on August 28th, 1963, an afternoon during which he was seated in a vast and empty catering hall at the Ivy Hotel in Wildwood, New Jersey, watching Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech on a black-and-white TV.

***

There were problems with the Whitmore prosecution before it even left the precinct. Officer Isola didn’t believe Whitmore to be a credible suspect. Whitmore didn’t match any reliable description. Whitmore’s accuser, Elba Borrero, had pointed to a different suspect entirely prior to encountering Mr. Whitmore through that eyehole. There was an issue concerning a photograph investigators found in Whitmore’s wallet. That image – deeply faded – featured a young, white, blonde female who investigators unjustifiably believed to be one of the two Upper East Side homicide victims. In addition, it was rumored all 61 pages of Whitmore’s confession had either been coached or beaten out of him, containing – as they did – only facts and suppositions the NYPD already knew.

Upon being confronted, Detective Edward Bulger, a highly-decorated member of the arrest unit, responded by asserting a certain degree of coaxing became necessary in the Whitmore case, specifically because the suspect appeared to be so unintelligent. Besides, Bulger reasoned, he could always tell when a negro was lying because “[the negro’s] stomach started churning” (a statement that never made its way into the record).

Immediately following George Whitmore’s arrest, the NYPD Chief of Detectives told reporters, “We’ve got the right guy, no question about it.” The local media ate it up, painting Whitmore as the culprit for what had long been dubbed the Career Girls Murder – so-called because both victims were aspiring professionals, both white, well-bred, living in a third-story apartment at 57 East 88th Street, their families vastly known throughout the community. Reporters labeled Whitmore a half-wit, a drifter, a homeless reprobate with homicidal tendencies. The idea became to vilify the 19-year old before trying him in court. Assuming a tainted jury found Whitmore guilty of attempted rape – the least of all four major charges – the next step would be to indict Whitmore for murder, the prosecution immeasurably bolstered due to a previous conviction.

Only then the house of cards began to tumble.

First, police admitted they had been investigating an unrelated suspect in the Career Girls Murder – Richard Robles, a 22-year old addict with prior convictions for misdemeanor theft and burglary. Next, word leaked that the picture found in Whitmore’s wallet was not, in fact, homicide victim Janice Wylie but instead a Wildwood native by the name of Arlene Franco (a detail Mr. Whitmore had originally divulged). Detective Bulger, doubling down on mass incompetence, claimed there was still no way of proving Whitmore hadn’t stolen the photograph from inside Janice Wylie’s apartment.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, George Whitmore was found guilty of attempted rape, one of several key pieces of evidence being a button torn from the assailant’s jacket during the attack. Prosecutors referred to this button repeatedly throughout the trial, reinforcing the notion it had come from Whitmore’s jacket (This despite an FBI analysis to the contrary). Final sentencing was suspended, pending the outcome of Mr. Whitmore’s double-murder trial.

Richard Robles, meanwhile, was indicted for the Career Girls Murder, the target of an ongoing sting. An unconnected investigation found every member of the original Whitmore jury had been prejudiced against him (assuming, as they did, Mr. Whitmore was a murderer). A mistrial was declared. A new trial was then ordered. Upon its conclusion, George Whitmore was found guilty yet again.

Shortly after, a mistrial had also been declared regarding a third – and completely separate – homicide the NYPD had unjustifiably pinned on Mr. Whitmore back in 1964.

In light of sweeping changes to state law, Whitmore’s second rape conviction was vacated, prompting the Brooklyn D.A. to announce he would be trying Mr. Whitmore for a third time. Whitmore, upon being re-found guilty, was sentenced to 5-10 years in prison. His appeal would be denied until April of 1973, at which point the Supreme Court intervened, ordering Mr. Whitmore be released. “If, in fact, George Whitmore, Jr. is guilty of these charges,” Justice Irwin Brownstein stated, “surely his debt to society has been paid. If he is innocent, I pray that my action today will in some measure repay society’s debt to him.”

The decision was handed down nearly nine years to the day after Whitmore had initially been picked up on Sutter Avenue in Brooklyn. The City of New York had exhausted every charge it ever filed against him.

***

Once set in motion, the wheels of jurisprudence are highly subject to inertia. In a case as widely publicized as Whitmore’s, the force required to stop those wheels – then set them back upon themselves – proved staggering. Commendations had been awarded, careers had been advanced. Reputations were at stake. Nonetheless, it was apparent Mr. Whitmore was not guilty; his incarceration, an obscene miscarriage of justice.

New York Sun reporter Selwyn Raab wrote a book about the case entitled Justice In The Back Room, the thrust of which had to do with how and why Mr. Whitmore was indicted. During the book’s publicity tour (i.e., 1967) Raab went on record numerous times, disputing the widely-held belief that Mr. Whitmore had a low IQ. According to Raab, Whitmore always struck him as engaging and insightful, the primary reason for his perceived lack of intelligence being an extreme case of nearsightedness – said to be approximately 20/200 – combined with an impoverished lack of eyeglasses throughout childhood.

Raab conducted his own investigation into the Borrero case, the lynchpin of which was an acquired affidavit signed by Elba Borrero’s sister-in-law, Celeste Viruet. In it, Viruet confirms Borrero’s attacker was actually a Spanish-speaking male. Viruet also confirms Elba Borrero had positively identified a different suspect prior to encountering Mr. Whitmore at the precinct.

Following the release of Justice In The Back Room, CBS obtained the rights to Whitmore’s story. The network adapted it into a made-for-TV movie entitled The Marcus-Nelson Murders. That movie premiered on March 8, 1973, its three-hour time slot proving so popular that not only was its fictional lead character, Theodore Kojak, afforded his own series, but one month later George Whitmore was set free.

***

I first became aware of Mr. Whitmore toward the end of August, 1995. It was late, 4 AM, and I was drinking with a group of seniors along a brass rail at the Poplar Café. One of those seniors – a gangly, tan and wrinkled man – began to explain to me the story of George Whitmore, about how the Ivy Hotel had once been located “only a few-ten blocks away from here.”

He went on. He told the story, a couple of others nodding in the affirmative. As it turned out, George Whitmore had been awarded a little over $500,000 by the City of New York at some point during the early 1980s. Whitmore used that money to buy a big ole’ house in nearby Dennisville, which he purchased at 75% of the asking price, then sold at a significant loss. From there George Whitmore moved to Wildwood, then Whitesboro, maybe Woodbine, before moving east to Wildwood once more. He was broke and he was haggard, a surly drunk, a prison junkie. “That fucking Whitmore is a parasite,” one of the old-timers assured me. “If there was any justice in this world he’d still be rotting up in Rikers.”

A few days later I got to talking with a boardwalk regular named Monk. Monk claimed that Mr. Whitmore had been living in a flophouse way out along Route 9. “It’s unfortunate,” Monk told me, as we discussed what had transpired. “You ask me, that poor kid had no business moving up there. He never should’ve gone.”

As of 1995, Whitmore’s case had been cited in several landmark Supreme Court decisions, including New York’s abolition of the death penalty (except in cases where a police officer has been shot), the federal right to be apprised of one’s Miranda rights, and the dissolution of blue-ribbon juries in criminal cases across multiple jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, we were approaching the tail-end of summer, almost 36 years to the day since Sammy Davis stopped his set at Wildwood’s Bolero Nightclub, claiming he would not play a town that refused service to negroes, almost 32 years to the day since Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the historic March on Washington, nearly 28 years to the day since New Jersey native Rubin Carter had been erroneously convicted of three homicides, approximately five years to the day since four black boys and one Hispanic had been erroneously convicted in the rape of a young, white, blonde financial analyst from the Upper East Side. Amidst all of that, George Whitmore sat, a 51-year-old living on welfare less than a mile from his boyhood home. To hear some people tell it, he never should’ve gone.

Day 933

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill