For those of you who are not familiar with Hays, Kansas, it is the preferred place to stop overnight for travel between Kansas City and the Colorado mountains. Interstate 70 passes just north of Hays, and offers many places to spend the night. In the old days, Hays was entering the ‘Wild West’ with a public defender committed to maintaining law and order. At one point in Hays’ checkered history, a sign was posted on both ends of town that black folks should not remain in Hays after dark. So much for civility!
The County Attorney was a well-respected protector of the peace. One year his Christmas cards included a picture of him leaning out of the court house second story window with a banner that said Merry Christmas. Ed was a popular man around Hays, a small city in the 1950s with a citizenry of about 50,000 folks.
Most all the locals were peace loving and easy to get along with. My wife attended one women’s group that met weekly. She snickered one time that the group opened each gathering with a ‘pledge to loveliness’. In Hays, as in the old days, the lovelies were always a bonus, as was true in Gunsmoke and the Wild West.
Like most cities of like-size, Hays harbored its assortment of characters. One notable character was the neighborhood fire-bug. Fires were rare in Hays. On one occasion, an old two-story farm home was hauled into the city, and re-located on a main thoroughfare. The local fire bug believed this addition to Hays was an offense to proper civility. For this reason, he schemed to rid the city of this eyesore. During one mid-morning, he entered the house on the sly, spread a combustible liquid around the floor not far from a book of gopher matches. He lit a cigarette, placed the filter-end inside the match cover, and left the premises immediately.
As a fire bug, as well as a volunteer fireman, he was overjoyed at the prospect of watching the fire of this local eyesore. In his wisdom, he showed up at the fire station before the fire was reported. He reported the fire, boarded the fire truck with the other volunteers, and looked forward to his jollies when arriving at the bonfire. When the fire truck arrived at the scene, the fire was in its infancy, and had not yet spread much beyond the space surrounding the match cover in the middle of the wooden floor. As an arsonist, this fire bug was certainly an amateur.
While Hays was heavily populated with peace-loving folks, an occasional character was certain to appear out of nowhere. There was a small bar on the North side of the highway going west out of town. This bar was owned and operated by the couple that lived in the house immediately behind the bar. Their relationship with customers was perfectly appropriate, the better to sell beer and keep them happy. Their relationship with each other was a horse of a different color. Seems the wife was known to be somewhat loose with herself, a flirt, and a vixen. This was clearly perceived by all, but was not so well accepted by the husband.
As the bar hours were long, the couple often alternated between tending bar and serving customers, while the other was elsewhere. This worked well for a period of time. As with all good things, – they may have a half-life, a period of time when they no longer work as well as they did in the beginning. This time was not far away.
One day the police received a call reporting an incident at the bar. Seems that both the husband and wife were in the bar. The wife was tending bar and the husband was milling around with the customers. At one point during the evening, the husband left the bar, went to the house, got his shotgun, returned to the bar, pointed the gun across the bar at his wife. The gun fired, the wife was mortally wounded, and subsequently pronounced dead at St. Mary’s Hospital. The police arrested the husband, charged him with homicide, and locked him in the county jail until a trial could be arranged. It didn’t take long.
Within 30 days a criminal trial was assembled in the Courthouse to adjudicate this homicide. The County Attorney, Ed Minor, was in charge of the prosecution. The defense was led by William Dreiling, an equally well-respected attorney in Ellis County. A jury of peers was attentive throughout the trial, and had the final say following the complete deliberation of this homicide. It would seem that a guilty verdict of some kind would be forthcoming. The lowest form of guilt, manslaughter, was considered along with degrees of guilt up to and including first degree, – premeditated murder.
As soon as the jury was able to come to a decision in which they could all agree, they returned from the jury room and took their seats. The judge asked the foreman if they had come to a verdict. The foreman stood and reported that all the jurors, following lengthy discussion and argument, had arrived at a verdict of ‘not guilty’. This shocking verdict was final, – of course.
It was inevitable, however, that discussions with members of the jury would ask how, exactly, a group of 11 reasonable folks could arrive at that verdict in view of the facts presented in the case. There were several witnesses in the bar that experienced the shooting. They all testified during the trial. They had all seen and verified the facts in the case. These facts were all presented during the lengthy trial.
After several days it was clear the jury’s deliberations were widely discussed in an effort to understand this clear miscarriage of justice. Among the juror’s reports, to those who asked, were several of the following assertions:
- The wife was a flirt and philanderer, if not an outright slut. She may well have been making money on the side.
- The husband was cast in the role of victim, deserving wide latitude in the appropriate degree of his guilt.
- Jury deliberations, at one point, focused on the act of pulling the trigger on the firearm. They agreed that nobody had actually witnessed the husband pulling the trigger. With this compelling lack of evidence, they concluded that since nobody actually saw the husband pull the trigger, – that he surely must be innocent.
Regardless of all evidence to the contrary, the most prominent report in the media was that nobody had witnessed the husband actually pulling the trigger.
This was justice as practiced in Hays, Kansas in 1959.