Hardly a scholar, Whitmore dropped out of school at 17; he had only made it to the 8th grade by that point. Two years later, living in Brooklyn, the police stopped while he was waiting on a road for a ride to work. They wanted to ask him some questions: did he know anything about some highly publicized crimes, “the Career Girl Murders”? Feeling street savvy, Whitmore felt “pleased” to help police with an important case. He thought it would be a good story to tell his friends, so he cooperated as much as he could. The officers hauled him in and, Whitmore testified later, beat him and forced him to sign a confession to those two murders, and an unrelated third rape-murder. It was April 1964 and, he said later, he didn’t even know what the paper he signed said. In 1965, prosecutors proved that Whitmore couldn’t have had anything to do with the Career Girl Murders; the actual culprit was found and convicted, and the charges against Whitmore were dropped. But the third case was still pending: even though it had been proved that the first two confessions were coerced — beaten out of Whitmore by police — the third confession, beaten out of him the same day, was used as evidence against him. A reporter for the New York World-Telegram and Sun found a dozen witnesses who said Whitmore was with them during the crime. How could they all remember that exact date and time? Because they were all watching TV together: Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Whitmore’s case showed how fragile the whole system was, and still is,” says that reporter, Selwyn Raab. “Even now, police use the same techniques to manipulate suspects into giving false confessions. And 90 percent of convictions are still based on confessions.”
At the time, legislators, with the horror of realizing that fact could lead to executions of the innocent, passed a bill (signed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1965) abolishing capital punishment in the state. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court cited Whitmore’s case in its “Miranda Rights” case ruling, which requires police to “read suspects their rights” before interrogation. Raab wrote a book about the case; that was turned into a 1973 TV movie starring Telly Savalas as the detective, which led to the TV series Kojak. Meanwhile, Whitmore was in and out of prison depending on the stage of his appeals; he wasn’t fully exonerated until April 1973. Whitmore went on to run a fishing boat …where he was injured and, disabled and unable to work, he ended up an alcoholic. “He told us about what happened to him,” said his daughter, Regina Whitmore. “But he said he never held it against anybody. He was always a very sweet man with us. He wanted us to grow up happy.” Whitmore, whose trumped-up case was responsible for ensuring rights for all Americans, died in a nursing home from a heart attack on October 8. He was 68.