Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse Harding Pomeroy

Trial and Verdict

The facts in the case of Jesse Pomeroy were not in dispute. Although Jesse denied killing Horace Millen, his attorneys were not hoping for freedom for the boy. Keeping Jesse out of the hangman's noose would be victory enough for his lawyer, Charles Robinson.

For his part, Jesse assumed that he would be put in jail for perhaps five years, until he was grown, and then allowed to join the Navy, which would teach him discipline.

The trial opened on Dec. 8, 1874, before a packed courtroom in Boston. It was the event of the season and made front page news in every paper from Montpelier, Vermont, to Charleston, South Carolina. Despite its prominence, it was a brief and unexciting affair, a miserable denouement to a tragic life. It took less than an hour to seat the jury, and opening arguments began immediately. The prosecutor, John May, began with a dry recitation of the murder statute, recited an equally uncompelling account of the evidence against Jesse Pomeroy, and ended with a request for jurors to do their duty fearlessly and faithfully.

May then began calling witnesses who could place Jesse with Horace on the day of the killing, those who found the body and the police who tracked the footprints and matched them to Jesse's boots. Next came the police to whom Jesse had confessed and then recanted, and a jail minister who also heard Jesse's confession.

Throughout the sometimes boring, sometimes gruesome testimony, Jesse sat stoically at the defense table, with a look of boredom and nonchalance on his face. When a witness was recounting how Jesse had told him he murdered poor Horace, Jesse sat with his head back and hands laced behind his neck as if he were pondering what to do on summer vacation rather than fighting for his life.

Once the prosecution rested, Robinson took the floor for his opening arguments.

In excruciatingly lurid detail, Robinson recounted the life and crimes of Jesse Pomeroy, bringing up his prior bad acts as well as the murder of Katie Curran, for which he was not on trial.  After he finished with the litany of offenses, he turned to the question of Jesse's sanity.

Jesse could not control his impulses. He was unable to rein in his demons, Robinson said. He would be a menace for as long as he walked the earth, and because of this, the legislature had created a law to protect society.

It was not the death penalty, Robinson said, but the statute regarding legal insanity: "When a person indicted for murder or manslaughter is acquitted by a jury by reason of insanity, the court shall order such person to be committed to one of the State Lunatic Hospitals during his natural life."

Having laid the groundwork for an insanity defense, Robinson began calling witnesses who could back up his assertion. The first witness was Ruth Pomeroy. Under intense questioning by Robinson, Ruth Pomeroy recounted the number of childhood illnesses that had left Jesse insane. Most notable was the sickness he suffered just before his first birthday, a brain fever which prompted a three-day delirium followed by an unexplained shaking of the head. From then on, Jesse suffered from numerous mental ailments: insomnia, dizziness and frequent violent headaches. Ruth Pomeroy testified that her youngest son was "addicted to dreaming extravagant dreams, which would haunt him the following day," Schechter writes.

The next witnesses followed similar lines of testimony. Neighbors described how he had a peculiar desire to hurt animals and that sometimes during play he would run off holding his head as if in great agony. Another told of witnessing Jesse stabbing a small kitten, while his school teacher took the stand and described a boy prone to loud outbursts in class and disruptive behavior that, when punished, elicited cries of injustice from Jesse. He wasn't to blame, he would tell his teacher. He couldn't help it.

Additional key testimony came from the victims of Jesse's molestation. The last victim, Robert Gould, still bore the scars on his face from where Jesse's knife had cut him. The victim's pitiful tales of the cruelties inflicted by Jesse Pomeroy might well have backfired on Robinson, who had hoped they would help prove his client's insanity. Instead, they may have caused such anger in the jury that the 12 men would never stand to acquit Jesse, no matter how crazy he was.

Next Robinson called the alienists to the stand.

First to testify, Dr. Tyler reiterated his assertion that Jesse was insane. He was a lunatic, the doctor claimed, because of his lack of motive, his seeming indifference to the crime and its consequences, and the barbarity of his offenses. Whether Jesse knew right from wrong when he committed the crimes was irrelevant, the doctor said. Lunatics can have their own sense of morality, he claimed.

On cross-examination, Dr. Tyler's assertions were shredded by prosecutor May, who got the alienist to admit that Jesse showed no other signs of madness beyond his crimes and that the love of violence could be a motive in and of itself.

The second doctor, although he claimed that Jesse was "not responsible when he committed the acts charged against him," also admitted under cross the fact that Jesse fled after committing the crimes "so as to escape punishment, was clear evidence of his power to distinguish between right and wrong."

The prosecution's appointed alienist, Dr. George T. Choate, contradicted the two defense doctors. He called Jesse cunning and deeply manipulative and said the boy was free of mental defect.

Following closing arguments the next day, the jury retired to ponder Jesse's fate. After five hours of deliberation, breaking once to have questions of premeditation answered by the judge, the jury reached a verdict. The jury found Jesse Pomeroy guilty of first-degree — premeditated — murder. The sentence for such a crime was mandatory: death by hanging.

The jurors, however, requested clemency for the boy on account of his age. This was, however, only within the power of the governor to grant, and the judge had no choice but to condemn the prisoner.

Sentencing was delayed several weeks because of post-trial motions, but in mid-February 1875 Judge Horace Gray looked down on a calm, almost bored Jesse Pomeroy, and urged the boy to "turn your thoughts to an appeal to the Eternal Judge of all hearts, and a preparation to the doom which awaits you." He then ordered Jesse taken to prison to await execution.

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