The year was 1932. Crime in Chicago had increased sharply during Prohibition, and the city denizens were anxious. On a cold and blustery Friday afternoon in December, two men entered a speakeasy and held its owner up at gunpoint. Shots were fired, and a policeman who happened to be present ended up dead - the eighth Chicago policeman to suffer a violent end that year. Another policeman murdered in broad daylight and in cold blood? It was important that the public believe that the forces of law and order were still in control of the city. The police force and the residents of the city were hungry for justice, or at least vengeance. A Polish immigrant named Joseph Majczek was soon arrested for the murder, and a month later a co-conspirator was also charged. After an uneventful trial, they were both convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to ninety-nine years in the Illinois State Prison. On appeal, their convictions were upheld. Case solved and case closed, or so it seemed. A short-lived blip on the front pages of the newspapers, this particular cop-killing was relegated to yesterday's headlines, the murder and the trial completely forgotten, at least in the popular imagination.
Eleven years later, however, the case became news once again. The convicted murderer's mother placed a classified ad in the Chicago Daily Times, offering a reward of $5000 to anyone with information that could help set her son free. The ad caught the eye of a Times reporter, who, thinking there might be a "human interest" story in it, passed it to an editor who then assigned it to two members of his staff. These reporters published a series of investigative articles that generated widespread sympathy for Majczek and eventually led to his release and pardon. In 1948, the case was revisited again, this time by Twentieth-Century Fox in a film named Call Northside 777, directed by Henry Hathaway and featuring James Stewart as an investigative reporter named P.J. McNeal, and Richard Conte as Frank Wiecek, the character based on Joseph Majczek.
Jennifer L. Mnookin & Nancy West,
Theaters of Proof: Visual Evidence and the Law in Call Northside 777,
Yale J.L. & Human.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol13/iss2/1