Tag Archive for remorse

The Unwritten Law

Judson C. Doke

Jury nullification — where a jury rejects a law and acquits a defendant it knows is really guilty of the crime — is not the same as a jury acquitting a defendant whom the world knows is guilty. In other words, the cases of defendants like Casey Anthony or George Zimmerman are not examples of jury nullification: they are just examples of either stupid juries or botched prosecutions.
 
The murder of 23-year-old Lamar Hollingshead by Judson C. Doke in 1934, however, is a blatant example of the theory of nullification where even jurors admitted that Doke was acquitted of the crime thanks to what one called “the unwritten law” (which is different from the legitimate notion of common law).
 
The apparent “unwritten law” that the rural California jury followed was the one that says it is not a crime to shoot down in cold blood a man who is having an affair with your wife.
 
That “law” appears to be based on the French concept of crime passionel, where the actor’s emotional state can be a mitigating factor to a crime. A classic crime of passion is one where one spouse discovers the other in the act and kills the lover.
 
The problem with Doke’s case is that Doke, 33, and his 22-year-old wife were separated and she was nowhere around when he confronted Lamar and shot him dead. Besides, in a crime of passion the emotional state does not absolve the person of the crime, it merely reduces it from murder to manslaughter. None of that mattered to the juries that tried Doke, however.
 
“We simply didn’t feel that a man had a right to go into another man’s home and steal his wife,” one of the jurors told the Woodland Daily Democrat after freeing Doke. “Doke was provoked beyond all endurance. We could understand just how he felt when he faced Hollingshead in that cabin.”
 
No one bothered to tell the jury that Doke’s first wife divorced him in 1928 because he was cheating on her.
 
The sad tale of Lamar Hollingshead and Helen Louise Jorze Doke begins in January 1934 at the University of California — Berkeley, where Lamar and Helen met and bonded over their mutual love of poetry. Both were accomplished and published poets, and as poets will, they shared their work with each other and eventually became intimate.
 
Their poems transcended romantic.

She wrote:

They were alone. He drew her toward him
And the fire of their passion swept over them
We are not gentle, we can never be gentle until this
They were alone. He drew her to him.
His hands…

While he responded:

…When we reached the-foam-flecked rocks;
With our feet in the scud, we waited,
Waited until darkness closed over us,
Over the sea and the rugged cliff against our backs.
I felt her fingers throbbing and moving in my hand,
Like some strange creature coming out of the sea to feel my flesh.
After each wave fell and the great boom of the sea,
There was silence; the rearing cliff against our back
And their terrible broken faces
Seemed to move down against us silently, emphatically.
Until the heavy sea let them, and the force of their union
Came over us where we lay terrified,
Terrified of this long struggle of atom against atom
That would endure when we were gone.

Eventually, Doke — a food inspector for the city of San Leandro who was authorized for some reason to carry a sidearm — caught wind of the relationship thanks to a local gossip, Kathryn Inglis, who tipped Doke off to the affair.
 
Helen Louise DokeDoke confronted his wife, and in the statement he gave to police, was prepared to be chivalrous.
 
“When I discovered that my wife and Hollingshead were on friendly terms, I told her that if she loved this man I would give her up if that would make her happy,” he told police. “She said she loved me and did not want to go with him.”
 
In that case, Doke demanded, they would travel to Lodi where together, they would confront the man who called Helen Louise his “White Hibiscus” and put an end to the relationship.
 
On the way there Helen Louise prevailed upon her husband to spare her the embarrassment of confronting her lover and promised to end the relationship. Doke accepted her word and they turned around and headed back to San Leandro.
 
The ever-helpful Mrs. Inglis talked Doke out of filing for divorce and into giving his wife another chance. But she apparently also liked to stir the pot to see what floated up and a short time afterward presented Doke with a box of letters between Helen Louise and Lamar.
 
“Curiosity got the best of me and I read three of the letters,” Doke testified.
 
The correspondence showed how much Helen Louise and Lamar reveled in their physical relationship, meeting at hotels near the Woodland farm where Lamar worked. Accompanying one letter from Helen Louise was a silk scarf to which Lamar responded:

Oh dear one, my own sweetheart:
Your letter came today. Oh, how I cherish the silken lovely scarf coming from your white loveliness. Oh, it will go with my leather blotter holder Mother gave me — always, always. She is the mother of my flesh; you’re the mother of my soul. You are the possessor of my poetic heart forever and a day.
Oh, this day is too vivid with the swell of courage to ever forget. It is a sensuous, fragile thing that you give me, which thrills me beyond worldly comprehension.

Lamar HollingsheadThere were more than 75 letters in the box and their contents clearly inflamed the man. Downplaying his rage, Doke said he headed back to Lodi to confront Lamar “for the purpose of talking it over” and explaining to him that as a college boy he could not support Helen Louise.
 
He took with him the revolver that his father had carried as a member of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during the Great War. Doke said he had no intention of killing his rival.
 
The two men met at the Hershey family ranch in Yolo County and, according to Doke were polite to each other.
 
“We shook hands and I said ‘You were expecting to see me some time,'” Doke would later testify. When Hollingshead responded in the affirmative, Doke said, “Well, let’s go some place and talk it over.”
 
The first order of business, Doke said, was to exchange Lamar’s letters to Helen Louise for hers to Lamar. The men agreed to the trade and as Lamar headed over to a suitcase, Doke brought out his pistol. He did not explain if he drew the gun because he thought Lamar had one in the suitcase or for some other reason. If Larmar’s dying declaration is to be believed, as it should have been, Doke wanted Lamar to write a letter to Helen Louise saying that his only attraction to her was physical.
 
Obviously, by telling you, gentle reader, that Lamar had time to give a dying declaration, it is clear that the shot Doke fired into the young poet’s gut did not kill him immediately.
 
The truth about what happened after Doke pulled the gun differs depending on which side of the courtroom the witness came from.
 
According to Doke, Lamar started to write the letter, but then threw down the pen and advanced toward him.
 
“He jumped up and shouted ‘I’ll be damned if I will. You can kill me first.'”
 
“At this point something came over me and I do not know exactly what happened,” he testified, but he admitted actively pulling the trigger as opposed to having it discharge accidentally.
 
“Everything went blank then and I shot at him. I meant to shoot into the floor at his feet to frighten him so he would write the letter,” Doke said. “He fell on the floor and I saw I had shot him in the stomach.”
 
Two prosecution witnesses, shorthand reporter Bessie Rae Huston — who wrote down Lamar’s last words — and Paul Hollingshead, Lamar’s brother — who heard them — testified that Lamar was standing with his back to Doke writing the letter when he was shot.
 
“He tried to force me to write a letter to Mrs. Doke,” Paul Hollingshead recalled his brother saying. “saying that all I wanted was her body. I wrote the date and then said I wouldn’t write it because it wasn’t true; that I would rather be shot. Then he shot me.”
 
Doke said he left the cabin and drove to nearby Arbuckle to get a doctor, but when he returned, Lamar was gone. He had been taken by some of his fellow ranch hands to the hospital in Woodland. Doke gathered up the letters strewn around the cabin and headed to the hospital, where he surrendered to the deputy sheriff there.
 
Doke stood trial for the first time in early November 1934 and it was rhetoric, not facts, that filled the courtroom. For the prosecution, it was Doke’s failure as a husband that prompted his wife to seek another man.
 
“No man’s wife is going to be unfaithful to him unless he has failed as a husband,” District Attorney C.C. MacDonald told the eight men and four women on the jury. “And he should have known that when the opportunity is presented to to young people, they’re bound to fall for each other.”
 
In contrast, Doke never had murder on his mind according to his counsel, Arthur Huston (perhaps a relative of the stenographer who took Lamar’s dying declaration?).
 
“As for Doke, his one thought was not revenge, not murder,” Huston said. “It was, despite the deepness of his own heart, to spare his wife humiliation, to do the generous thing, and to save her from the danger of having her letters left in the hands of a man who could at any time use them against her if she refused to accede to his demands.”
 
That first jury couldn’t decide who was right and deadlocked. A new trial was swiftly called. The only difference between the two trials was the introduction of allegations that Lamar was a communist.
 
It did not take the jury long to reject the facts which clearly demonstrated that a crime had occurred and acquit Judson C. Doke.
 
Doke was more than humble in victory. He even told the press that a manslaughter conviction would have been fair.
 
“I was a fool — a terrible fool — when I shot Hollingshead,” he said a few days later. “Believe it or not, when I think of his family I can sincerely say that I would willingly sacrifice my own life to give their boy back to them. That is the way I feel about it.”
 
While Helen Louise was joyful for her husband’s acquittal, he was not so quick to reconcile and began divorce proceedings.
 
He did take a moment to blame a woman he called “the human post office” for her role in the whole tragedy.
 
“Mrs. Inglis meddled too much,” he said. “She poisoned my mind. If she had kept quiet my wife and I might have been able to patch things up.”
 
For her part, Kathryn Inglis defended her actions and did not miss the chance to throw some more vitriol.
 
“He asked for the letters. I would not give them to him,” she said. “He said he wanted them as a basis for divorce. I tried to argue with him. Then I begged him not to read them.
 
“Doke told me of his troubles with Helen. He said she had had affairs with other men. He told many things — intimate things — and that he married Helen on the spur of the moment.”
 
There was a little bit of a strange twist to the case. Immediately upon his acquittal Doke was arrested by police on charges of embezzlement. Apparently he had pocketed some of the fees paid to cover the cost of dairy inspections. He was convicted of that charge and sentenced to 1 to 10 years in prison.
 
Bankrupt because of his ongoing legal troubles, Doke dropped his divorce action to focus the theft charges. While Doke was cooling his heels in prison, Helen Louise went to live with her parents near Lodi.
 
Doke was paroled in 1938 and took a job in the state of Washington. Whether or not Helen Louise went with him remains a mystery.
 
One thing is clear, however: Upon his release from prison, his wayward wife was not there to meet him. A Berkeley Daily Gazette reporter was the only person there that day, which the paper saw fit to report — right below a wire story from Disney, Oklahoma, announcing that Mrs. Billie Baker had been elected mayor on a “whoopee platform,” defeating her opponent who proposed a 9 p.m. curfew for their “nice little town.”

Death House Conversions

The story of Dennis Skillicorn prompts us to consider issues like how much credit should we give a cold-blooded killer who repents and demonstrates remorse through good works.
 
In the 1990s Skillicorn killed three people as he and a couple of friends made their way across the Midwest from Missouri to California in a drug-induced frenzy of violence and mayhem. A decade later Skillicorn, now a death row inmate whose last, best hope to avoid the needle is a sympathetic governor, is the editor of a national bimonthly publication of prisoners’ essays, letters, and poetry, called Compassion. One of the magazine’s notable accomplishments is to raise money for scholarships to help family members of murder victims get through college.
 
Skillicorn described his spiritual rebirth as his “Road to Damascus conversion” in an article on Compassion in Mother Jones magazine in 2006, and he states upfront in the article that “(it’s) not an attempt to extinguish the pain we’ve created. You really can’t do that. But it gives guys like myself an opportunity to give something back to those people that have been victimized by violent crime.”
 
The American criminal penal philosophy is punishment tempered with rehabilitation. The system does not have any place or use for redemption, but Skillicorn’s case raises the issue of redemption by asking whether it is possible for a condemned prisoner to work his way off death row through good works. If so, how much atonement will change a death sentence into a life term?
 
Death penalty opponents don’t have to worry about those questions. No capital punishment is OK in their view. But supporters of executing convicted murderers do have to look at inmates like Skillicorn and wonder if redemption is possible in a justice system that exacts the ultimate penalty for some crimes.
 
William James, in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, examines conversions like the one Skillicorn says he had. Religious experiences have four things in common, he wrote. The commonality that concerns us today is that a spiritual awakening is transformative. It changes the person who is converted.
 
What follows is the story of what Dennis Skillicorn was like before his conversion. The old Dennis Skillicorn earned a ticket to the death house. Readers can visit the Mother Jones article above and decide for themselves what the new Dennis Skillicorn has earned.
 
In late August 1994, Skillicorn, Allen Nicklasson, and Tim DeGraffenreid headed east in a broken-down Chevy Caprice from Kansas City in search of drugs.
 
After their car broke down and they turned down a state trooper’s offer of help, the trio decided to burglarize a nearby home, stealing guns and money. They used the money to pay for a tow to nearby Kingdom City, Missouri, where a mechanic managed to make their beater driveable.
 
The trio then drove the car back east toward the site of the robbery when the car stalled again.
 
Richard Drummond was driving by and saw the stranded group. Being a Good Samaritan, he stopped and offered to take them to use a phone.
 
The three loaded their swag into the trunk of Drummond’s car, and got in, with DeGraffenreid in the front, and Skillicorn and Nicklasson in the back. Nicklasson pulled a gun on Drummond, forcing him to drive them at gunpoint.
 
According to Skillicorn’s later statement to the FBI, as Nicklasson held a gun to Drummond’s head, Skillicorn asked Drummond questions ostensibly in order to calm him down, but included in the questioning whether Drummond’s “old lady” would miss him. As Drummond drove east, Skillicorn “got to thinking…if we let this guy off, he’s got this car phone.”
 
Skillicorn told Drummond that they would have to disable the car phone, and take Drummond “out in the woods somewhere on one of these side roads” and “lose” him. Skillicorn claimed that Nicklasson told him that Nicklasson was going have to “do something to this guy.”
 
They directed Drummond to a secluded area off an exit on I-70 — the road dubbed “America’s Sewer Pipe” by law enforcement because of the crime and mayhem that it brings as it meanders across the country — just east of Higginsville, Missouri. As Nicklasson prepared to walk Drummond through a field toward a wooded area, Skillicorn demanded Drummond’s wallet.
 
“We decided we was going to take his car and leave him out in the middle of the woods,” Skillicorn told the FBI. Knowing that Nicklasson carried a loaded .22 caliber pistol, Skillicorn watched as Nicklasson led Drummond into the wooded area.
 
Nicklasson walked Drummond into the forest, ordered him to kneel, told him to say his prayers, and shot him in the head twice.
 
Allen Nicklasson“I started to get a warm feeling in the center of my body and it spread as I looked at him kneeling in front of me,” he later confessed. “I put the gun to the top of the back of his head, told him to say a prayer, and bam! bam! I shot him.”
 
Drummond’s remains were found eight days later.
 
Nicklasson, Skillicorn and DeGraffenreid continued west on I-70 in Drummond’s car. They stopped at a house in Blue Springs. A woman who had dated DeGraffenried came to the house looking for him. She knocked on the door.
 
Nicklasson answered, then came outside and said, “Don’t nobody touch my car,” referring to Drummond’s car. With that Nicklasson took a shotgun from the trunk of Drummond’s car. He put the shotgun to the woman’s head and announced that he would kill her.
 
“He did not kill her, apparently satisfied that he had made his point after he hit her in the face,” the Missouri Supreme Court wrote in Nicklasson’s appeal.
 
Sometime later, Nicklasson, DeGraffenried and Skillicorn left and went to another friend’s house. There, Nicklasson told her that he had killed someone in the woods and described the murder. After a planning session at a local restaurant, Nicklasson and Skillicorn decided to drive to Arizona. DeGraffenreid stayed behind.
 
While on the run, in Arizona, Nicklasson shot and killed Joseph Babcock under circumstances similar to the Drummond murder — the man tried to help them retrieve their car from where it was stuck in the sand.
 
Skillicorn said he told the Babcocks they had been hunting and needed help getting the car unstuck. Joe Babcock agreed to help, drove the men to the car and tried several times to pull the car out with his truck. But the car wouldn’t budge.
 
“Al said, ‘Well, you know what I’m gonna have to do,’ and I said to give him a chance,” according to Skillicorn. “He (Babcock) said, ‘I really think you’re going to have to get a tow truck. ‘ That was the end of it for Al.”
 
After killing this Good Samaritan, the two went back to Babcock’s house and Nicklasson killed the his wife, Charlene. Nicklasson and Skillicorn then absconded across California, stealing a purse from a woman in a supermarket and committing armed robbery along the way. They eventually made it to Mexico, where, according to Skillicorn, Nicklasson killed a waitress at a diner.
 
Skillicorn said he had told Nicklasson that he was afraid of him — with good reason. Nicklasson also said he threatened to kill Skillicorn and would if he felt it was necessary.
 
“When we got down to Mexico I said: ‘Brother, I’ll tell you the truth,” Skillicorn said. “There’s been nights I had trouble sleeping around you. You told me yourself you enjoy this.’”
 
Eventually the two returned to the United States, and both were arrested in San Diego after the police picked them up on successive days as hitchhikers.
 
Following his arrest in San Diego, Nicklasson gave a confession to the FBI. Skillicorn also gave a sworn statement to the FBI admitting his involvement in the Drummond murder. Skillicorn also recounted the Arizona murders, the burglaries and armed robberies committed on the journey, and described how Nicklasson had killed the waitress in Mexico.
 
Nicklasson and Skillicorn were sentenced to death in Missouri. Skillicorn received a pair of life terms in Arizona. DeGraffenried pleaded guilty for his role in Drummond’s murder.
 
The question about Skillicorn’s death house conversion is academic now: On May 20, 2009, Dennis Skillicorn, apologizing to the family and friends of his victims, was executed by the State of Missouri.
 
Nicklasson was executed by the State of Missouri on Dec. 11, 2013.