LeRoy Benton walked into the Tulsa Police station on May 22, 1945, a day after learning that police wanted to talk to him.
“Did you want to see me?” Benton asked Capt. Harry Stege, superintendent of the police bureau of identification.
Thus began an ordeal in which he was arrested, held for 20 days without being charged with a crime, questioned incessantly and denied access to a lawyer.
After being told that a mob outside was threatening to lynch him, Benton agreed to confess in the slaying of Mrs. Panta Lou Liles, a 20-year-old defense worker. He then repudiated the confession.
In November 1945, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Benton, a 30-year-old black man, was defended by Amos T. Hall and B.C. Franklin, two Tulsa attorneys who established distinguished careers in advancing civil rights for minorities.
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Hall and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall led the legal fight that forced the University of Oklahoma to admit Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher as the first black person in its law school in 1949. Hall also became the first elected black judge in Oklahoma in 1970.
Franklin had represented black property owners following the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. He was the father of the late historian, author and professor John Hope Franklin, for whom a Tulsa park memorializing the Race Riot is named.
Hall and Franklin quickly appealed Benton’s conviction. On Feb. 18, 1948, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals lambasted the conduct of the police and prosecutors, reversed the conviction and ordered him set free.
Judge John Brett, writing for the three-member panel, said that Benton had been subjected to “sweat box” and “star chamber inquisitorial practices” and was coerced into making a false confession under threat of mob violence.
During the 1940s, a string of lurid murders terrorized Tulsa residents. Liles and four other women were bludgeoned to death as they slept and their bodies sexually assaulted after death. All lived in a neighborhood just north of downtown Tulsa.
Tulsa police and county investigators questioned known sex offenders and checked out hundreds of tips, false leads and rumors, to no avail.
When Benton showed up at the police station, he was taken into custody and questioned about the Liles case. For two weeks, he steadfastly maintained his innocence.
‘That damn mob’
While being questioned on June 4, Benton heard loud noises outside and asked what it was.
“Probably that damn mob,” Benton testified he was told by a police officer.
About 7:30 p.m., Benton was taken to County Attorney Dixie Gilmer’s office. He was seated in a chair in the middle of a room under a bright light. Arranged around the room were enlarged photographs of the crime scene and the murdered victim. He was grilled for 24 hours without food or rest.
Again, he heard noises outside and was told the mob had gathered.
“You will be lucky to go to trial, and even if you do get to trial, you will probably be mobbed, and so will your attorneys,” the officer told Benton, according to his trial testimony.
Fearing for his life, Benton asked whether police would get him out of prison if he were to confess and they later found the real murderer.
“LeRoy, if such a thing does happen, I will spend the balance of my life trying to get you out of the penitentiary,” the officer replied. Benton confessed to County Attorney Gilmer, but became confused when pressed for details.
Although a stenographer was called, no written record of a confession was made.
Trips to Okmulgee, Kansas City, McAlester
Gilmer apparently decided the coerced confession was insufficient, so the defendant was taken to an Okmulgee jail, ostensibly to avoid mob violence.
Next, police took Benton to Kansas City for an FBI lie-detector test. Police told Tulsa reporters that the polygraph test revealed Benton had “guilty knowledge” of the crime, but the test results were not presented at trial.
In a final, futile attempt to extract a valid confession, Benton was taken to McAlester.
“Though the police commissioner, the chief of police, the county attorney and the assistant county attorney took part in the grilling …, not one of them took the witness stand to testify in support of the circumstances under which the confession was obtained,” the appeals court noted.
“What the defendant said amounted to an impeachment of the official conduct of these officers in the administration of justice,” the court said.
Freedom for Benton
Benton was released on March 4, 1948, and went to Hammond, Indiana, to live with an uncle, according to his daughters. He married Dorothy M. Ballance in 1959 and the couple moved to Chicago. There, they adopted twin girls.
According to his obituary, Benton was born in Idabel, Oklahoma, and spent his formative years in Tulsa, where he attended Booker T. Washington High School.
Benton worked for Kaiser Aluminum for more than 20 years and was a longtime parishioner of St. Dorothy Catholic Church in Chicago.
He died in 1998, leaving behind daughters Jacquelyn Baldwin and Joslyn James, three grandchildren and a host of friends. He was 82.
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