The Innocents (1964)
by Edward D. Radin

Excerpt on

John Valletutti

About 2 o'clock on the morning of October 11, 1945, one or two gunmen (witnesses disagreed on the number) entered a tavern in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn and attempted a holdup. One of the patrons was Leo Conlon, a paratrooper who had been wounded in action in Germany and was home on furlough. Conlon lunged at the gunman near him and was shot through the heart.

Some three months later, on January 29, 1946, William Cronholm, eighteen, was found asleep in a stolen car containing two revolvers. Three additional guns were found in a garage he rented near his home in Brooklyn. Cronholm confessed that he had shot Conlon. He first said that he had committed the attempted robbery alone but later signed a confession saying that three men had participated, one waiting in the automobile, while the other entered with him. He said the other two men were recent acquaintances; he knew nothing about the wheelman and knew only that the first name of his companion in the tavern was Johnny.

At his trial he returned to his original story and said that only he had participated in the crime, that he had made up his story of two other men to stop the lengthy questioning. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Detectives refused to believe his story that he had been alone; they also doubted that he did not know the identity of Johnny. They investigated his background thoroughly and learned that he knew a youth named John Valletutti who had been a juvenile delinquent and had been sentenced for the theft of a car. Valletutti was out on parole on the night of the murder. A month later he had been returned to prison because he had stayed out later than the midnight deadline.

When Valletutti was released from Coxsackie on December 7 he was met by two detectives and brought back to Brooklyn for questioning on the Conlon murder. Some thirty hours after he had been in police custody, an assistant district attorney and a stenographer were summoned to take Valletutti's confession.

This confession was the sole evidence introduced against him at his trial. None of the patrons at the bar could identify him; no one placed him with Cronholm that night, and no one placed him in the vicinity of the tavern.

Valletutti testified that he had been beaten steadily for hours by detectives until he agreed to sign a false confession. He testified that at the time of the murder he had been playing shuffleboard several miles from the scene. His story was supported by the owner of the place and a group of customers. Cronholm was brought down from prison and again testified that he had committed the robbery alone and that Valletutti had not been with him. When prisoners enter a jail in New York City they are given a thorough physical examination by a staff doctor. This physician's report on Valletutti was read into the record at the trial. The doctor had found many contusions of the lower chest wall and numerous bruises on the scalp. A jury convicted Valletutti of first-degree murder with a recommendation of mercy, which usually means life imprisonment. On sentencing day the judge disregarded the jury's recommendation, denounced Valletutti as a vicious killer – Cronholm had admitted he did the shooting – and sentenced Valletutti to die in the electric chair. Cronholm previously had received a life sentence.

All death sentences in New York receive a mandatory review by the Court of Appeals. In a majority opinion this court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. In the opinion Justice Desmond pointed out that although police had denied any brutality, the district attorney had not summoned the prison doctor as a prosecution witness, and remarked, "It plainly appears that the defendant did somehow sustain substantial physical injuries while in close custody of public officials." The court further pointed out that despite the criminal code Valletutti had not been arraigned in court until some forty-eight hours after he had been taken into custody and that he had been held incommunicado during his questioning without being allowed to communicate with friends, relatives, or a lawyer. "Unless the confession was shown to have been, beyond doubt, a voluntary and reliable one, the conviction must fall."

Valletutti was returned to Brooklyn for a new trial. At a hearing held before the same judge who had sentenced him, the prosecution admitted that it had no evidence against Valletutti except his confession and agreed to dismiss the indictment. The judge reserved decision, stating that he wanted to study the case further. On September 28, 1948, he granted a motion to dismiss the indictment.