The Whitmore Confessions and Richard Robles Trial: 1965

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The Whitmore Confessions and Richard
Robles Trial: 1965

Defendant: Richard Robles
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Attorneys: Frederick H. Block and Jack S. Hoffinger
Chief Prosecutor: John F. Keenan
Judge: Irwin D. Davidson
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: October 18-December 1, 1965
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The notoriety of two murders for which Robles was eventually convicted contributed to the legal problems of George Whitmore, Jr., who was initially arrested for the crimes. Whitmore's arrest had a profound effect upon the nature of police interrogations, earning it a mention in the U.S. Supreme Court's Miranda decision.

In the early morning of April 23, 1964, a police patrolman chased away a man assaulting Elba Borrero on a dark Brooklyn, New York, street. When the officer returned to the scene later, he found George Whitmore, Jr., standing in a doorway. The young black man asked if the officer had been the same one shooting at the woman's attacker earlier and volunteered a description of the fleeing suspect.

Similarities between the assault on Borrero and the recent murder of Minnie Edmonds in the same neighborhood convinced detectives that they should have another talk with Whitmore. He was brought to the 73rd precinct on April 24. After questioning him for 22 hours without the presence of an attorney, detectives announced that Whitmore had confessed to both the Borrero assault and the Edmonds killing.

Whitmore also signed a more spectacular confession. Eight months before, Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert were found tied together and stabbed to death in their Manhattan apartment. A Brooklyn detective familiar with the case thought that a photo of an attractive blonde found in Whitmore's wallet resembled Wylie and had begun the interrogation leading to the confession. The police announced to the press that the bloody "Career Girls Murder" was now solved beyond a doubt.

Confessions Discredited

Brooklyn authorities immediately charged Whitmore with the Borrero and Edmonds crimes. Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan's office, however, was slow to indict Whitmore in the Wylie-Hoffert murders. Manhattan prosecutors noticed that every detail in Whitmore's lengthy confession was known to police beforehand. Investigators quietly collected evidence showing the confession to be false. The blonde in the photo was located alive in southern New Jersey, not far from the garbage dump where Whitmore initially claimed to have found the picture.

After Whitmore's confession was discredited, Hogan's office did not immediately dismiss the indictment against him, even though the prosecutors secretly knew that police had a new suspect. With Brooklyn authorities, the public, and even the jury still assuming that Whitmore was a confessed murderer, he was tried in November 1964 for attempting to rape Elba Borrero. She identified Whitmore as her attacker, although she acknowledged that he was the only suspect police had shown her. She also admitted that she had discussed a $10,000 reward offered for the conviction of Janice Wylie's killer with a lawyer. Brandishing Whitmore's ragged raincoat and a leather button Borrero had torn from her attacker's coat, the prosecutor asked the jury, "Haven't we nailed George Whitmore right on the button in the truest sense of the word?"

Whitmore was found guilty, but he was granted a new trial because racial prejudice and knowledge of the Wylie-Hoffert indictment had swayed the jury. The prosecutor also admitted to withholding an FBI report stating that the threads on Whitmore's coat did not match those on the celebrated button.

Richard Robles Arrested

On January 26, a man named Richard Robles was arrested for the Wylie-Hoffert murders. Upon Robles' arrest, District Attorney Hogan petitioned the courts to release Whitmore from the murder indictment on his own recognizance. Despite Robles' arrest, however, Hogan did not request complete dismissal of the Whitmore indictment. This controversial technicality allowed other prosecutors to rebuff defense claims that Whitmore's confessions to the Edmonds murder and Borrero assault were as unsound as his invalid Wylie-Hoffert confession.

In May 1965, the New York State Legislature outlawed capital punishment. Their decision was influenced by public concern over the false confession that nearly electrocuted George Whitmore. Yet Whitmore's legal troubles were far from over. With the Manhattan district attorney still refusing to clear him entirely in the Wylie-Hoffert case, Whitmore went to trial for murdering Minnie Edmonds, solely on the evidence of his "confession."

After a stormy trial marked by Whitmore's accusation that his confessions had been beaten out of him, police denials, and open feuding between the judge and the defense attorney, the jury could not agree on a verdict. Several days after the Edmonds mistrial was declared, Whitmore was finally cleared in the Wylie-Hoffert case.

Nevertheless, when Robles was tried in the autumn of 1965, his attorneys attempted to buoy the credibility of Whitmore's Wylie-Hoffert confession to create a reasonable doubt that their own client had committed the crime.

Prosecutor John F. Keenan replied by summoning Whitmore and the detectives who had arrested him. Whitmore's testimony was erratic, but Keenan's grueling questioning of the detectives illuminated the sloppy analysis of physical evidence that had put Whitmore under suspicion. Whitmore's claims of physical abuse remained in dispute, but threats and trickery had clearly helped elicit his "confession." His guilt was assumed on racist grounds like one detective's belief that "you can always tell when a Negro is lying by watching his stomach, because it moves in and out when he lies."

Robles' attorneys were unable to translate doubts about police interrogation methods to their own client's advantage, despite testimony that Robles had confessed to the Wylie-Hoffert murders while suffering from heroin withdrawal and without his attorney present. He was found guilty, largely on the basis of secretly tape-recorded conversations about the murder. Observers debated the verdict because Robles' self-incriminating statements were made to a fellow junkie, who became an informant and testified in return for immunity in an unrelated homicide.

Whitmore Retried in Assault Case

George Whitmore was retried for attempted rape in March 1966. Borrero's shaky but impassioned identification and Whitmore's confession were the prosecution's only evidence. Whitmore's attorney argued vehemently to introduce the Wylie-Hoffert episode in court, attempting to illustrate the tainted atmosphere in which the confession was obtained. When the judge agreed with the prosecution that past charges against the defendant should not be discussed before the juryironically reversing the protective nature of this rule to Whitmore's disadvantagethe defense attorney remained mute in protest for the rest of the trial. Whitmore was found guilty.

On June 13, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Miranda decision regarding the rights of crime suspects. The court acknowledged that coercive interrogations could produce false confessions. "The most conspicuous example occurred in New York in 1964," stated a footnote, "when a Negro of limited intelligence confessed to two brutal murders and a rape which he had not committed. When this was discovered, the prosecutor was reported as saying: 'Call it what you wantbrain-washing, hypnosis, fright. The only thing I don't believe is that Whitmore was beaten.'"

The Miranda decision eliminated Whitmore's retrial for the Edmonds murder because his confession was the only evidence against him. When the high court voted not to apply the Miranda rule retroactively, however, Whitmore's attempted rape conviction stood. It was later overturned when an appellate court decided that preventing testimony about the Wylie-Hoffert "confession" had put the defense at a disadvantage.

Whitmore Convicted Again, then Released

On the sole evidence of Borrero's persistent accusations, Whitmore was tried and convicted a third time in May 1967. He returned to prison, sentenced to maximum sentences for attempted rape and assault. An attempt to seek a fourth trial faltered when his conviction was upheld in July 1970.

Meanwhile, Whitmore's defenders located Borrero's sister-in-law Celeste Viruet in Puerto Rico and returned with an affidavit stating that Borrero's courtroom testimony was contradicted by what she told her family shortly after the attack. Viruet had seen the attacker from her window, but police had never asked her to look at Whitmore. Borrero also had identified a different man in a "mug shot" notebook before police had shown her Whitmore.

On April 10, 1973, after four years in prison and nine years of trials, Whitmore was released and all charges against him were dismissed. He attempted to sue the city for $10 million for improper arrest and malicious prosecution. The suits were dismissed on technicalities. "They wrecked my life," Whitmore said bitterly, "and they still won't admit they did anything wrong.

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestion Further Reading

Cunningham, Barry with Mike Pearl. Mr. District Attorney: The Story of Frank S. Hogan and the Manhattan D.A.'s Office. New York: Mason/Charter, 1977.

Lefkowitz, Bernard and Kenneth G. Gross. The Victims. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969.

Raab, Selwyn. "Justice vs. George Whitmore." The Nation (July 2, 1973): 10-13.

Shapiro, Fred C. Whitmore. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1969.

. "Department of Amplification." The New Yorker (June 9, 1973): 80.