CHICAGO -- Nearly 60 years after he says he was forced by police to confess to a rape he never committed, Oscar Walden Jr. stood in a federal courtroom Tuesday as curious jurors gathered around him so he could show them scars from when a police officer bent his hand back, causing excruciating pain.
"Those two scars are still there," said Walden, 79, who buttoned his olive suit before drawing jurors over to study his middle and index fingers. "That's half a century old."
In a remarkable trial playing out in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago, Walden recounted on Tuesday how he says he was beaten and threatened into confessing that he raped a woman on Nov. 24, 1951, on the South Side.
Walden is one of many men who have been pardoned by former Gov. George Ryan. But unlike others, his allegations go back so long ago that he is the only remaining witness to them. The seven officers who are alleged to have abused him are dead. So too is the rape victim. The police station where the abuse allegedly took place in part doesn't even exist any longer.
Walden is still seeking justice six decades later in a proceeding that will rely heavily on his memory of the cold day he was arrested while sitting on the back of a bus on his way to his job at an iron works factory and aged transcripts of what others said happened.
In fact, the city argues that scars on Oscar Walden's hands came from the victim herself after she bit him during the assault.
"It will be up to you, ladies and gentleman, to decide," city attorney Avi Kamionski told the jury when the trial opened on Monday. "But under both versions, the scars have been there since the 1950s."
Former federal Judge George Leighton, who in private practice handled a post-conviction filing for Walden in 1957, also testified on Walden's behalf. At 98, Leighton returned to the very floor where he used to preside to tell the jury what he recalled of the case as well as that troubling time in Chicago's history. He and Joseph Lipari, a history expert from the University of Illinois, Chicago, said Chicago police routinely coerced confessions from black suspects in the 1950s while preventing them from seeing attorneys and family members for extended periods.
"That's how it was done," Leighton said.
But the most dramatic testimony came from Walden, who was released in 1965 after spending 14 years in prison.
Leaning on his cane and moving with slow but steady steps, Walden, who has an advanced degree and is a writer and musician, described his ordeal in detail, including how close the white police officers sat beside him and how he was kicked, slapped, repeatedly insulted with racial epithets and then heard a chilling threat that officers were going to "get the ropes."
"I thought they were going to lynch me," said Walden, who is black and was accused of raping a middle-age white woman.
Walden was arrested about seven weeks after the rape after someone tipped police to Walden based on a police sketch of the suspect. In court Tuesday, Walden viewed a black-and-white photo of himself next to the sketch. Aside from similar thick glasses he wore, he looked nothing like the suspect, Walden told the jury. A newspaper account from the time said Walden was almost a perfect likeness.
Kamionski, the city attorney, told the jury that the victim of the rape viewed between 15 and 20 suspects before identifying Walden as the man who assaulted her.
"She did identify Walden," he said. "The only person alive today who can talk about what happened back in 1951 is Mr. Walden, and just because he says it doesn't make it so."
The lawsuit, though, alleged police botched the identification by letting the victim see Walden alone with all the white detectives, not in a lineup with other blacks.
Walden had challenged his conviction years ago, but the Illinois Supreme Court denied his appeal. His 2002 pardon from Ryan triggered his federal lawsuit. Walden's lawyer, Flint Taylor, a veteran at police brutality cases, said he doesn't believe a case that goes back this many years has ever been tried before in federal court here.
The post-conviction petition that Walden lost years ago had been handled by Leighton, who later served as a federal judge from 1976 to 1987.
Testifying in a clear, strong voice, Leighton said Walden had told him that he was buying musical instruments on Wabash Avenue at the time of the attack -- an alibi that Leighton said he was able to verify.
The son of a domestic worker and steel worker, Walden was 20 and married when he was arrested. He didn't have a criminal record and had never even dealt with police. His allegedly coerced confession echoed police abuse allegations from more recent decades but at the same time draws an antiquated picture of police practices.
For example, the victim was allowed to be in the room when Walden was interrogated and later he was ordered to apologize to her.
That came, Walden testified on Tuesday, after the repeated beating and the threats.
"I'm sorry and forgive me," Walden said he told her. "I continued to tell the lie. It's a lie -- that's what it was. Fiction, not fact."
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