Bilger & Sheeler

Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania
Date of Alleged Crime:  Nov. 23, 1936

Philadelphia patrolman James T. Morrow was murdered while tracking down a suspected robber who had been terrorizing the northeast section of the city.  Police, in efforts to solve the murder, arrested and extracted confessions from three different men over a several year period.  Two of the men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison before being exonerated.

During the first few months of the investigation, police arrested Joseph Broderick and quickly extracted a confession from him.  A few days later Broderick recanted.  When it became evident to officials that the confession was coerced, Broderick was released.

Approximately one year later police arrested another suspect, George Bilger, for Morrow's murder.  Bilger then became the second man to confess to Morrow's murder.  In his confession Bilger implicated a Philadelphia patrolman as an accomplice in the murder.  At his trial Bilger repeated his confession and the jury promptly found him guilty and recommended that he receive the death penalty.  However, the case against the patrolman Bilger had implicated quickly fell apart and that trial ended in an acquittal.  Bilger's trial judge then became suspicious of the confession and ordered a new trial for Bilger.  At the second trial Bilger again pleaded guilty and the judge had no alternative but to sentence him; still unsure of the confession, the judge sentenced him to life in prison instead of giving him the death penalty.

Two years later the same type of robbery that had been attributed to Bilger began to reoccur in northeast Philadelphia.  Police received a tip that the robber was a known criminal named Jack Howard.  When police tracked Howard down, they mortally wounded him in a gunfight.  In Howard's possession was the murder weapon that had been used to kill Officer Morrow.  Although police had no reason to believe that Howard had an accomplice, they staked out the hospital room of a friend of his, Elizabeth Morgan, to see if any of Howard's acquaintances might visit her.  When Morgan's brother, Rudolph Sheeler, came to visit his sister, he was immediately arrested and taken to police headquarters.  He was beaten for hours at a time over a two-week period.  He finally confessed to aiding Howard in the murder.  At trial Sheeler pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.  Bilger, who by this time had spent two years in prison, was pardoned and transferred to a mental hospital.

Twelve years passed until proof surfaced that Sheeler was at work hundreds of miles away at the time of Morrow's murder.  A judge reviewed the case and found that key details of the case were contradicted by his confession, and that his confessions and court statements contradicted each other.  The judge concluded that Sheeler had been forced to confess because police were eager to free Bilger and therefore clear the reputation of the officer he had implicated – even though that officer had been acquitted.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, calling the case “a black and shameful page in the history of the Philadelphia police department,” overturned Sheeler's conviction and ordered his immediate release.  Four detectives and two superior officers were suspended for their roles in Sheeler's coerced confession.  [10/07]

References:  RamseyTime Magazine

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Philadelphia Cases, Police Officer Murder Cases