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Did Charlie Becker get a fair trial?

Lt. Charles Becker of the New York City Police Dept

Nearly one hundred years have passed and there are still concerns if justice was really carried out. It was the most sensational crime of its time; and, on April 13, 1914 four men met their fate in the electric chair for the murder of Herman Rosenthal. It took only 37 minutes for all four to be electrocuted.

A year later, on July 30, 1915, a fifth man was also executed for the same murder. This time the executioner had a problem. He had to pull the switch three times before the large man was finally dead. It was a long and agonizing way to die. Some witnesses fainted, others simply fled in horror. A few must have felt that the execution was a mistake; and, was the man strapped in the chair really guilty? His name was Charles Becker and he had been an officer with the New York Police.

Lieutenant Becker was a notoriously crooked cop, and he had made a fortune by protecting illegal gamblers. Herman Rosenthal, who owned a gambling place, had refused to pay Becker for the protection. According to court testimony, Becker retaliated by having Rosenthal murdered. Early in the morning of July 16, 1912, Herman Rosenthal was shot dead by four gunmen. The shooting took place in front of the Metropole Hotel, now called the Casablanca Hotel Times Square.

The four gunmen were quickly apprehended, confessed, and then said that Bald Jack Rose was the man who recruited them. Rose, who was a major New York gangster, was also one of Charlie Becker's men. He quickly caved in when questioned. Realizing, he too, would be in line for the electric chair, Bald Jack Rose made a deal with the District Attorney Charles Whitman. Rose would walk free if he gave testimony against Charlie Becker. He quickly agreed and Becker was indicted for his complicity in the murder of Herman Rosenthal.

Becker vehemently denied any involvement. Charlie Becker seems the likely mastermind, but there are serious doubts about his guilt.

Whitman's case against Becker was weak. Bald Jack Rose became the state's chief witness to Charlie Becker's involvement in the murder "There is a fellow I would like to have croaked! Have him murdered!" Rose testified that Charlie Becker had said this to him about Rosenthal.

It seems that Rose's credibility would be extremely unreliable. He had his own extensive criminal background and he even admitted under oath that he didn't always tell the truth. In fact, he stated in testimony that he lied a lot, and especially about the details of Herman Rosenthal's murder.

Despite Rose's admitted shortfalls, Charlie Becker was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. His conviction was appealed and the New York Court of Appeals granted a new trial. The court stated that the testimony from Jack Rose, and other Whitman witnesses, was worthless and unbelievable. The District Attorney's chief witness to Charlie Becker's guilt was a complete bust.

In Becker's second trial, Whitman enlisted the help of James Marshall as his primary witness against Becker. Marshall was paid to testify and Whitman probably influenced his testimony. Marshall had been an informant for Becker, and like the others, also had a criminal background. He stated that he knew Becker had ordered the hit and he had even talked to Becker on the night of the murder. He placed Becker at the crime scene. Whitman dazzled the jury with his eloquence and Becker was convicted and sentenced to death, once again.

Shortly after the trial, James Marshall got into trouble with the police. He was arrested for beating his wife. She told the press that her husband's testimony against Charlie Becker was all lies. Marshall initially confirmed that he had lied, but later recanted his statement. Again, Whitman's key witness fell short of being credible.

Charles Whitman used the Becker case to gain national attention for his desire to become the Governor of New York. He took advantage of the newspaper's interest and held many press conferences to discuss the case. Public opinion was clearly behind Whitman's witch hunt for justice.

In addition to the less than stellar character of the state's key witnesses, three of the four convicted gunmen offered jailhouse confessions that Becker had nothing to do with Rosenthal's killing. Whitman had no problem using the testimony of felons and known gangsters, when it served his purpose. The confessions, however, were never seriously considered.

Elected as Governor, Charles Whitman had the power to save Charlie Becker from the electric chair. A number of prominent people tried to persuade Whitman to recuse himself from the decision. Whitman refused, and instead held a press conference hours before Becker was to go to the chair. In his statement, he also said that Charlie Becker had brought about the death of his (Whitman's) wife. Mrs. Whitman, however, had died of natural causes and Charlie Becker did not know her. Whitman's statement was bizarre, but it was intended to demonize Becker, one last time.

There is no doubt that Charlie Becker was a bad cop. The famed author Stephen Crane once witnessed him beating up a prostitute. Crane brought charges against Becker, but they were dismissed. A bully and a brute, Becker had a motive for wanting Rosenthal dead, but so did a number of gamblers who were competing with Rosenthal's gambling business. The public was thirsty for a cop to take the fall, and Charlie Becker was the choice.

Governor Whitman could have done the right thing and commuted Becker's sentence to life behind bars. Instead, he decided to continue with the pretense. In the end, Becker paid the price that the public had wanted -- his life. Charlie Becker had affixed to his coffin a silver plate with the inscription: "Charles Becker. Murdered July 13, 1915. By Governor Whitman." Charlie Becker did not receive a fair trial.

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