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A jury doubts police, and votes ‘not guilty’

Last July, Barbara Coates, 62, was stabbed 15 times in the chest and left alone to die in her Germantown home.

Two weeks ago, Robert Crenshaw, 44, who was charged with the murder, was acquitted after testifying that he had been beaten by Philadelphia homicide detectives and forced to sign a false confession.

Last week, six jurors were interviewed by The Inquirer. Several said they suspected that Crenshaw was, in fact, the killer. But they were not certain, they said, and they voted for acquittal after 13 hours because many jurors believed that the only evidence against Crenshaw – the supposed confession – had been beaten out of him.

"It's sickening," Lula Carr, a juror, said in an interview. "We have no justice anyplace . . . . You can't trust police today. If they're going to beat you up, then where are we?  What's the difference between the police and the hoodlums on the street?"

Angered by verdict

The members of the jury are not the only ones upset by the Crenshaw trial. The district attorney's office, the Police Department and – most notably – the family of the victim are outraged.

They believe that a killer has been acquitted.

Last month, in a series of articles, The Inquirer described a pattern of beatings, intimidation and other forms of coercion that have been used in homicide interrogations. In some cases, the series documented, those methods have resulted in killers going free and murders going unsolved when "confessions" were thrown out as evidence.

Since 1974, the series reported, judges have ruled in pretrial hearings that interrogations were illegal in 80 homicide cases. In the Crenshaw case, the interrogation was ruled legal in the pretrial hearing. During the trial, however, when the jurors heard the confession and testimony on how it was obtained, they had doubts about its validity.

And so, because this case – like many homicide cases – was built on a dubious confession, the suspect went free.

(The jury was sequestered for four weeks and did not see the Inquirer series before reaching its verdict.)

System broke down

The Crenshaw case – in the eyes of almost everyone involved – seems to be one in which the entire system of justice broke down. Police, who believe that Crenshaw is the killer, say the murder never would have occurred if judges had not been so liberal in sentencing.

Crenshaw has an arrest record dating back to 1949, with a dozen convictions for such crimes as theft, burglary, assault and battery, aggravated robbery and aggravated assault. He admitted in testimony that he had been a heroin addict for the last 13 years and said he needed 12 "bags" of heroin a day at a cost of $5 a bag – a $21,900-a-year habit. Crenshaw had been receiving $2,200 a year as a welfare client.

Different judges have sentenced him to probation for three separate crimes since 1979; each time he was arrested on another charge, he was released probation. He was on parole from an earlier conviction and was enrolled in a methadone program when he was arrested last summer for murder.

"It's a mockery of justice," Assistant District Attorney Roger King, the prosecutor, said after the trial. "It's a travesty."

But the case against Crenshaw is not yet over. Currently he is in jail awaiting trail on another charge of murder. He is alleged to have stabbed Sara Tiers, 79, to death in her Germantown home one day before Miss Coates was found dead.

The investigative methods used in the case appear similar to those that produced last week's acquittal.

The same detectives who investigated Crenshaw on the Coates murder – Detective Chitwood, George Cassidy and Joseph Bross – conducted the interrogation of the Tiers killing. Crenshaw also allegedly signed a confession to that murder.

And defense attorney Cecil Moore said Crenshaw would again testify that Chitwood, Cassidy and Bross beat him until he signed a false confession.

Both murder victims, Miss Coates and Mrs. Tiers, were found dead on July 19.

Although there were no witnesses to either crime, in both cases the killer used the same method of operation:  Gaining entry to the premises by knocking on her door and asking for a glass of water. Glasses of water were found in both victims' homes.

Three days after the bodies were found, Carol Havey of Germantown gave a tall black man with a spot on his nose a drink of water. Later, she discovered that her pocketbook was missing and called police, providing them with a description of the visitor.

Police did not find the murder weapon in either killing and they found no identifiable fingerprints on the glasses of water. They determined, however, that in all three incidents items had been stolen from the homes.

On the basis of Mrs. Havey's description, police identified Crenshaw as the suspect.

They arrested him in Germantown on Aug. 23 and brought him to police headquarters, known as the Roundhouse at Eighth and Race Streets. At 9:45 a.m., according to police records, Crenshaw was taken into Interrogation Room 121 by Detective Gerald Graham.

The interrogation

At 10 a.m., according to police records, Detectives Chitwood, Cassidy and Bross entered into the room and told Crenshaw of his constitutional rights. According to police, Crenshaw said he understood his rights and voluntarily waived his right to remain silent. He also said he did not want a lawyer, police said.

Chitwood was the first to question Crenshaw, according to police records. He asked:  "Would you go on in your own words and tell us all you know about the stabbing death of Barbara Coates?"

Crenshaw allegedly replied:  "Look I'm telling you everything. My bag is to rob and steal. What I do is knock on doors and see who's home and look for old ladies. I didn't mean to kill her either . . . I walked into the living room. She went to the kitchen . . .

"I grabbed her . . . I told her wanted money . . . The she grabbed me . . . and started screaming and she broke away . . . I chased her and caught her in the bedroom. I seen a letter opener . . . I drug her to the sofa in the living room and started stabbing her with the letter opener. Then she stopped moving."

Police said Crenshaw continued to explain the murder in detail for about four hours. At 2:08 p.m., according to police, Chitwood read the 10-page statement back, and Crenshaw signed it.

Later that afternoon, with Crenshaw still in the interrogation room, the detectives read the statement into a tape recorder, asking Crenshaw, who read at the fourth grade level, to verify the various pinpoints of it.

Similarly, police said, Crenshaw confessed to the murder of Mrs. Tiers. The detectives said Crenshaw voluntarily made the statements and was not threatened or coerced in any manner.

But Crenshaw's account of the interrogation was different.

Before a jury was chosen for the trial eight months later, there was a pretrial hearing before Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Williams to determine if the confession would be admissible as evidence.

Crenshaw testified that he was never warned of his rights. He said that as soon as he entered the tiny interrogation room he was handcuffed to a metal chair bolted to the floor. Chitwood, he said, stood directly in front of him, and Cassidy was at his side.

He said Chitwood called him a "damn nigger" and other names, and then punched him in the face. Cassidy then punched the side of his face, Crenshaw testified.

The two detectives continued to strike his face, he said until Chitwood left the room. Chitwood returned with a telephone book, placed it on Crenshaw's head and pounded on it with a stick, Crenshaw testified.

Detective Bross joined in the interrogation by kicking Crenshaw on the shins, the defendant testified.

The purpose of the beating, Crenshaw said, was to force him to sign a confession to the murders.

"Every time they asked me a question, they punched me in the jaw," Crenshaw testified. "They just kept beating me, punching and beating me … until I couldn't take it no more."

Crenshaw said he was also struck while detectives tape-recorded the statement.

Pretrial hearing

At the pretrial hearing, Chitwood and Bross denied that any detective had touched Crenshaw.

Dr. Edward Guy, medical director of the Philadelphia Detention Center at 8201 State Rd., testified that Crenshaw had complained that he had been beaten by police. However, Guy testified that there were no visible signs of a beating.

Crenshaw's parole officer, Howrhu Self, testified that he saw Crenshaw the day after the interrogation and that he face seemed to be swollen.

Self testified that Crenshaw told him:  "Chitwood said, 'We can keep you here (in the interrogation room) for 72 hours and beat your black ----,'"

Judge Williams, after hearing testimony from both sides, ruled that the interrogation was legal and that Crenshaw's statement was admissible as evidence.

As jury selection began, Assistant District Attorney King asked the judge to sequester each juror as he was selected. The reason for this unusual step, he said, was that he expected The Inquirer to publish a series of articles about homicide interrogations in Philadelphia. He did not want the jurors to be influenced by the articles.

On April 21, the jury was chosen and sequestered. From that date until the end of the trial on May 17, the jurors saw no newspapers and listened to no news broadcasts.

On April 24, The Inquirer began publication of its series on homicide interrogations. In the series, Chitwood and Cassidy were among those named as having taken part in illegal interrogations in which judges found that there had been beatings by police.

At his trial Crenshaw again testified that he had been beaten in his interrogations. However, Chitwood – who had denied that there was a beating in testimony at the pretrial hearing – did not testify at all at Crenshaw's trial. Neither did Cassidy.

Of the three homicide detectives who interrogated Crenshaw, Bross was the only one to testify at the trial. He denied that any detective had struck the defendant.

Attorney Moore, in his closing argument, stressed that the confession was the only evidence against his client. He said the police – and not Crenshaw – had written the statement, and he told the jury that Chitwood and Cassidy had not testified because they did not want to be cross-examined about the alleged beating.

Moore also reminded the jurors that he had presented a number of alibi witnesses.

King argued to the jury that Moor was trying to confuse and distort the issue – whether Crenshaw had stabbed Miss Coates to death. He said that Crenshaw was lying about the beatings and he argued that the manner of the interrogation was not the question the jury had to decide. And he said he had shown that the alibi witnesses were lying.

The jury went out to deliberate at 4 p.m. May 16.

"God, we didn't know what to believe," one juror said in an interview. "Was there a reasonable doubt?  I guess so. Did he do it?  I thought so, but I wasn't sure. I wasn't convinced . . . The evidence wasn't clear enough."

The jurors insisted in interviews that race was not an issue in their deliberation – despite the fact that in his closing argument, Moore repeatedly pointed out that Chitwood, who is white, allegedly made numerous racial slurs against Crenshaw. (Ten of the jurors were black.)

At 6 p.m. on May 17, the jury acquitted Crenshaw.

Recently the victim's cousin, Elizabeth Coates of Bryn Mawr, reflected on the murder and the trial.

"My cousin was one of two women brutally murdered on two successive days last July," said in a letter to The Inquirer. "When the suspect, Crenshaw, was arrested, the people in the Germantown neighborhood were relieved. They were convinced he was guilty."

After the verdict, the Germantown Courier, a weekly community paper which covered the case closely, concluded in an analysis of the case:  "The police were in essence found guilty when a jury acquitted Robert Crenshaw …"

Neither police officials nor members of the district attorney's office are free to commend on the case now because Crenshaw is awaiting trial on the second murder charge. Police Commissioner Joseph F. O'Neill refused to discuss the case. He has also refused to allow his subordinates to discuss homicide interrogations with The Inquirer.