George Whitmore Jr. “never saw himself as a race activist. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, from prison and on the streets, he watched the civil rights movement and the Black Power Movement at a wary distance. He did not judge people by the their skin color. He knew he had been the victim of a grave injustice, but he did not assume that the detectives who framed him, or his slow torture at the hands of a rigged system, were motivated by racial prejudice.” Thus writes, T.J. English in his New York Times piece (here), “Who Will Mourn George Whitmore?”
According to English—who befriended Whitmore and has written The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge about Whitmore and his times—in April, 1964, Whitmore, at 19 years old, was picked up by New York City detectives and interrogated for 22-hours before signing a confession to numerous crimes including the murder of two Upper East Side young white women. In spite of his claim that his confession was coerced, he was convicted and imprisoned. While his name was cleared nine years later for the double homicide (and the actual perpetrator eventually convicted), he never recovered from the alcoholism developed in prison and the impact of the injustice he suffered. He recently died in poverty and obscurity at age 68.
English notes, “By staying strong for all of those years — by not taking a plea deal, as he had been offered numerous times — Whitmore forced the justice system to come to terms with the injustice that had been done to him. His ordeal was a key factor in the abolition of the death penalty…by the [NY] State Legislature…and in the 1966 case Miranda v Arizona, which broadened the rights of criminal suspects under interrogation.”
This poignant and beautifully written obituary-of-sorts, is painful to read but a stirring tribute to a wrongfully convicted man. It’s also a reminder of progress made and the work still required to advance our criminal justice system toward its full promise of justice for all.