Tag Archive for senseless

Death and (Low) Taxes

On an overcast Tennessee morning about a month before the 1998 election, State Senator Tommy Burks was more concerned about the work to be done on his Putnam County farm than about the upcoming vote. There was no reason for him to feel otherwise.
 
A conservative Southern Democrat, Burks was highly regarded by his constituents and was almost assured of reelection. His Republican opponent in the race, Putnam County Tax Assessor Byron “Low Tax” Looper, had been so quiet during the election season that most folks in Burks’ district thought he was running unopposed.
 
Looper had a history of bizarre behavior. His reputation was such that Burks presciently expressed concerns to a friend about what Looper might do during the campaign.
 
Although he adopted the moniker “Low Tax” as an election gimmick, he eventually legally changed his name to include it. Looper believed because he was the only Republican in office in Putnam County, he was the victim of an ongoing political plot to ruin him. Worse than his paranoia was his ambition. He was frequently levying outrageous charges against perceived opponents or praising himself in lengthy press releases that he faxed across the country at county expense. Burks’s state Senate seat was supposed to be the next step in a journey that would end in Washington, D.C.
 
An alternative newspaper, The Putnam Pit, supported Looper and advanced his conspiracy theories. The paper remains convinced that Looper was set up by a Cumberland County political cabal.
 
His election to county office was more luck than anything Looper himself did. The Democrats had such a stranglehold on the seat that the GOP establishment did not even put up a candidate. Looper added his name to the ballot as a Republican without any knowledge of the party. However, the long-serving assessor was accused of malfeasance in office and was under a cloud of suspicion. Voters — but not as many as one might expect — simply chose the only other name on the ballot.
 
Low Tax was both corrupt and inept, although the ineptitude was far more troubling than over-staffing the office with political cronies and his own lackadaisical approach to showing up for work (He was enrolled in law school across the border in Georgia and would be absent from work for days at a time). Assessments were not recorded if they were made at all, tax records were not updated and Putnam County missed the state deadline to distribute tax bills, prompting the state to step in. Once an audit was completed the state took control over the office. Looper was left to manage his press releases and dream up new conspiracies.
 
Undeterred, Looper put his own name on the ballot to challenge Tommy Burks. The party considered the race such a lost cause that it provided no support. Looper did not want or need their help. He had a plan.

Murder

Even with a practically nonexistent opponent, Burks had planned a busy day of meet-and-greet in Putnam, Clay and Macon counties. Among the other things on the politician’s schedule, it was his daughter’s birthday and Burks was looking forward seeing his grandchildren for a celebration later that day.
 
A light rain was falling when Burks drove away from his two-story brick house and turned down Hog House Road to speak to farmhand Wesley Rex. Wes was on his way to a pumpkin field where a wagon had broken down. It was important for him to get the wagon fixed because on this day a group of elementary school children were coming on their annual pumpkin patch field trip.
Tenn. State Sen. Tommy Burks
 
They sat in their respective trucks and chatted about the chores for the day but stopped talking briefly as an older dark-colored car started down the road. After speaking for a minute, the two men went their separate ways. The strange car probably belonged to a constituent, they must have thought.
 
Wesley Rex was approaching the pumpkin field when he heard a “pop” sound, much like the backfiring of an engine. He looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the dark car approaching at high speed. He averted his eyes as the car zoomed past, trying to keep the dust out of his face, but not before getting a look at the man behind the wheel. Wesley did not think he had ever seen the man before.
 
He briefly considered the car, but quickly put it out of his mind as he set about fixing the wagon. As he headed back to pick up a forgotten tool, he passed Burks’s truck and noticed Burks had his head down. The truck was idling and Burks still had his foot on the brake. Wes had no reason to think anything was wrong at that point. Retrieving his wrenches, Wes started back toward the wagon and saw Burks was still sitting with his foot on the brake. This time, Wes thought something looked odd and stopped his truck. Burks’s head had dropped lower and his forehead was resting on the steering wheel.
 
Charlotte Burks was on her way to Cookeville when she saw Wes Rex driving toward her. She swerved to the side of the road as Rex slammed on the brakes and his truck slid on the gravel road.
 
“Miss Charlotte, something’s wrong with Mr. Burks,” Wes was saying, breathlessly. “He’s hurt awful bad. He’s bleeding from his ears.”
 
“Go get help!” Charlotte shouted at the teenager. “Call 911.”
 
Tommy Burks sat in his Ford pickup, his head resting on the steering wheel. There was blood everywhere in the cab and a glance by Charlotte revealed that Burks wasn’t just bleeding from his ears. Blood was flowing from a large gunshot wound to his forehead, just above his left eye. The back of his head was swollen. State Sen. Tommy Burks, popular politician and well-to-do hog farmer, was dead.

Looking for Looper


When Putnam County investigators arrived on the scene, they realized that they would not have jurisdiction in this case. Burks’s spread straddled two counties, and Burks had died just over the county line. They called in Sheriff Butch Burgess, District Attorney General Billy Gibson and the Cumberland County authorities.
 
Burks’s body was taken to the morgue where the medical examiner reported the senator had died from the single gunshot wound to his head. Death was almost instantaneous, the coroner told police.
 
The murder of a political candidate and long-time elected official prompted media inquiries from around the nation, and put Gibson and Butch Burgess in the center of a media storm. The word around town was that Looper had a hand in the crime, so reporters grilled them on the Putnam County Assessor’s status. The authorities would not commit.
 
“We have reached a point in the investigation where it is necessary to talk to Mr. Looper,” said one Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent cautiously.
 
What authorities weren’t saying was that Wesley Rex had positively identified Looper as the sole occupant of the dark-colored car he had seen on Hog House Road on the morning Burks was slain.
 
Wesley Rex’s ID only served to strengthen investigators’ suspicions. Looper was the only person authorities could find who had any plausible motive for shooting Burks. Rex’s positive identification put Looper at the top of a very short list of suspects and police made interviewing Looper their top priority.
 
But Looper was gone. His home on 4th Street in Cookeville was vacant and his car was missing. The media, both local and national, reported that a manhunt was on for the opponent of the deceased state senator from Tennessee.
 
Perhaps the most wanted man in America, Looper took a long road trip. Heading first to Little Rock, he bragged to an unbelieving former school-mate that he had killed his opponent and obliquely asked him to provide an alibi. The man, Joe Bond, testified that the word of “Loopifer,” as he was known in school, could not be trusted, so he discounted Looper’s claim. After borrowing a suitcase, Looper was on the road again before Bond saw the news and contacted police.
 
The fugitive headed across the Smokey Mountains to South Carolina, where he briefly talked to a former colleague in the Georgia House of Representatives where Looper served as a page (not as a legislative aide as he claimed on his resume). When she told him he was a wanted man, he seemed unperturbed, she said. Then he left, refusing to tell her his plans.
 
Putnam County authorities had Looper’s home under surveillance, never thinking that the assessor would simply return home and walk into their grasp. But that’s what Looper did. Acting like a man who had no reason to believe he was wanted for questioning in connection with a murder, Looper returned to his house at about 1 a.m. Friday morning, almost five days after Tommy Burks’s death.
 
Officer Michael Matt of the Cookeville police was sitting in a prowl car near Looper’s home when he saw Looper drive up in a dark Chevrolet. He radioed the news in as Looper went inside and disappeared from view for a few moments. He returned to the living room, where Matt observed him sitting in a chair reading his mail. In a few moments, TBI agents and investigators from Bill Gibson’s office showed up and summoned Looper outside. They placed him under arrest and took him to the Cumberland County jail.

Election

While Looper sat in jail, his political opponents and friends of Tommy Burks moved fast to have him removed from the ballot and his office as tax assessor. They quickly filed an ouster suit naming several Putnam County landowners as plaintiffs, charging that Looper’s mere arrest constituted moral ineptitude, one of several factors required for removal.
 
Charlotte Burks also took action to prevent Looper from winning her husband’s place in the General Assembly. She mounted an aggressive write-in campaign for the Senate seat, and picked up nearly every supporter who had previously endorsed her husband. Normally apathetic citizens took part in the campaign, working door-to-door to educate voters about Charlotte’s campaign. Stickers were printed to be affixed to ballots, handbills announcing the change were passed out and political ads were run in the local media.
 
Even the state GOP took the extraordinary step of endorsing Charlotte Burks.
 
Looper spent the day of the election in the Cumberland County jail and was handily defeated by Charlotte. Ironically, one the votes his alleged act cost him was his own: Looper had not voted early, and had not made arrangements for any absentee voting. In keeping with standard jail policy, inmates were not taken to the polls. Charlotte outpolled Looper 25 to 1.

Courtroom Antics

A week after his arrest, Looper appeared in court for the first time, entering a not guilty plea during his arraignment. Looper’s attorneys for the arraignment were Lionel Barrett, a prominent Nashville criminal defense attorney described as “an institution around the criminal courts” and Jerry Burgess, a local lawyer who had once faced off against Gibson in the district attorney election.
 
Barrett was an ardent death penalty foe: “No circumstances, period, would ever make me favor the death penalty,” he said once. Barrett served as the president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers twice and was the first recipient of the association’s award for “extraordinary effort” in defending capital murder cases. The award now bears his name.
 
It is probably appropriate to point out that Barrett’s management of a Tennessee death row inmate’s was heavily criticized by the American Bar Association in a 2011 Journal article. The piece alleged Barrett’s lack of attention to the case as the major reason the convict could be executed. In the article Barrett agreed to the allegations made by the Journal and blamed his crumbling finances as being a distraction.
 
A packed courtroom in Crossville was the scene of Looper’s preliminary hearing. Security was tight in the courthouse, and observers had to pass through several metal detectors and searches before they could enter the courtroom.
 
Looper was brought to the courthouse in handcuffs and leg chains, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. He changed into a suit before the hearing and was not handcuffed or shackled in court. He looked a little haggard, and it was clear he hadn’t been able to keep up his deportment. His face was drawn and pale, and there were noticeable dark patches under his eyes.
 
First up was the Coroner, Dr. Sullivan Smith, who described how Tommy Burks had been shot in the head with a 9mm weapon. Smith testified that Burks had been shot from close range by a gunman who fired from an upward angle. The bullet was recovered from Burks’s body and was in good shape for analysis.
 
Following Smith, Putnam County Election Chairman Perry Bartlett gave testimony that pointed toward the motive. Since Burks’ death on October 19 fell within 30 days of the November 3 election, state law required that his name be removed from the ballot.
 
“It’s such an obscure law that we didn’t know it existed before this occurrence,” he testified.
 
Gibson chose not to put farm hand Wesley Rex on the stand because his background as a special education student could have provided Barrett with grounds to challenge his competency. But Bill Gibson didn’t need Wes to take the stand because he had what was considered “a powerful and explosive witness”: Joe Bond, the friend of Looper’s whom he visited immediately after the shooting and to whom Looper allegedly confessed.
 
Looper’s sole emotional demonstration occurred when Gibson called Bond to the stand. He appeared visibly surprised when Bond appeared in the courtroom and consulted quickly with his attorneys. Bond was the prosecution’s final witness in the nearly three-hour hearing, but his testimony was by far the most damaging.
 
“He said ‘I did it, man. I did it,'” Bond testified under questioning by Gibson. “He said: ‘I killed that dude.'”
 
Bond confirmed the suspected motive when he testified that Looper had told him about the statute during his confession.
 
The judge didn’t have to deliberate long to determine that probable cause existed to charge Looper with first degree murder. After Looper was returned to the jail, Barrett tried to downplay the effect Joe Bond had on his case. Burgess, however, was a little more reticent.
 
“The state has produced a very powerful and explosive witness,” he said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
 
While prosecutors took advantage of the holiday break to prepare their cases, Looper, in a move that he was to repeat several times during the next several years, fired his legal staff. Looper’s new defense attorney, Doug Trant was present when Looper appeared in court on February 5, 1999 to enter a plea.
 
The Honorable J. Steve Daniel of Murfreesburo, a 15-year veteran of the Tennessee bench, was named to oversee the case. Daniel had an impressive resume: He was former president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and the Tennessee Trial Judges Association. He spent 28 years in the U.S. Army, serving as the Reserve Military Judge for Kentucky and Tennessee and holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Daniel had been awarded the Outstanding Service Award by the Tennessee Judicial Conference in 1995.

Evidence and Allegations

Prosecutors got a break in the Looper case in early March when a road crew found a 9mm handgun along Interstate 40. Ballistic tests showed that the weapon was the gun that killed Tommy Burks. The pistol was in poor shape, but its serial number was readable and was quickly traced back to a close Looper friend – former Monterey Mayor and Assessor’s office employee John Bowden. Bowden acknowledged that he had once owned the gun, but said he had sold it in 1997 or 1998 to a flea market gun dealer. Bowden and Looper had been political cronies, and when Bowden was defeated in a December 1997 election, Looper hired him as a “tax investigator”.
 
A central part of Looper’s defense was his insistence that he was framed as part of a wide-reaching political plot, and as proof of that plot he offered the testimony of John Wayne Dedmon, 33, who had rented a room from Looper and worked off criminal charges of his own by serving as a police informant.
 
In 1997, Dedmon, facing charges of passing bad checks, began working for Gibson. He infilted a local gambling ring that was using pinball machines for gaming. However, Dedmon became angry when Gibson confiscated his earnings from the undercover work to cover his fines and restitution. He claimed that he secretly recorded the prosecutor asking the informant to “set him up,” meaning Looper. Gibson denied that any such conversation ever took place and some people who heard the tape said the voice was clearly not his.
 
Trant said that he intended to introduce the tape into evidence in Looper’s murder trial and a hearing was set by Daniel. But Dedmon vanished and the $42,000 Corvette he had purchased — with a worthless check –turned up abandoned.
 
“I am afraid that something bad has happened to my friend John,” Looper told a Nashville newspaper. “It could be that he has met with foul play.”
 
Something bad did happen to Dedmon, but it was of his own making. Dedmon, an admitted drug abuser, showed up at his mother’s home about a week later and in a fit of rage destroyed the windows of a parked car. A few hours later he was involuntarily committed to a Chattanooga psychiatric hospital.
 
Dedmon later appeared before Daniels and said he could not recall anything before the last few weeks. “I’ve been on drugs real bad,” he said as his role in the case ended.
 
Gibson allowed the deadline for seeking the death penalty to pass without posting a notice of intent. The Burks family had a strong say in Gibson’s decision, and said they felt life in prison in general population would be worse punishment than a solitary cell on death row.

Lawyers Go, Lawyers Come

At the next court hearing in July, 1999, approximately one month before the case was set to go to trial, Trant, a 20-year trial lawyer and former head of the Knox County Democratic Committee, told the court he could no longer represent Looper. He previously filed a motion citing irreconcilable differences with his client and made vague references to ethical concerns.
 
“I regret that I have to make this motion, but it has come to the point where I can no longer ethically represent Mr. Looper,” Trant told Daniel. Trant said defending the case in the manner Looper wanted would result in a violation of Tennessee Code of Professional Conduct which deals with representing a client within the bounds of the law.
 
Daniel granted Trant’s request, ordering him to file under court seal the exact nature of his ethical dilemma. Daniel agreed to a court-appointed attorney for Looper. Crossville attorney Larry Warner was appointed to act as defense counsel in the case. Through no fault of his own, Warner’s fate would be the same as all Looper’s previous lawyers.
 
The prosecution announced in court filings that TBI agents had found the Audi that Looper allegedly drove when he assassinated Burks. After the shooting Looper left the car at a repair shop, and then advised the shop to sell it and keep the proceeds. It was confiscated from the subsequent owner and turned over to the TBI.
 
Here and there, little bits of evidence turned up. A cashier at the drive-up window at Hardee’s in Crossville said a man matching Looper’s description caused a small scene shortly before the slaying; his order was incorrect and he sat at the drive-thru waiting for it to be corrected, the woman testified. When the order was complete, Looper “threw the money at the window,” she said.
 
Looper summoned the editor of the Crossville Chronicle and complained that he was not being represented fairly. Looper said he distrusted his court-appointed lawyers and that the case was not progressing as he wanted. Looper was reluctant to talk about specifics of his case, except to say that his family had found two other attorneys that he would like to see take it on.
 
McCraken “Ken” Poston, a skilled defense attorney who served in the Georgia legislature and had known Looper from his days as an aide, wanted in on the case. Looper said his mother had taken out a second mortgage on her home to pay his fee. The second lawyer, Ron Cordova, was a former Orange County, California prosecutor who had been following the case out of personal interest and said if Poston was going to serve as counsel, he would donate his services for free.
 
With extreme reluctance, Daniel allowed the men to take over the case, noting that their trial experience meant he was going to adhere to the set timeline and would grant no more continuances.

Trial

Five hundred people were summoned for jury duty and two hundred showed up at the Sullivan County Courthouse to be selected for jury duty in mid-August, twenty-two months after Tommy Burks was gunned down on his hog farm. About 100 miles or so from Crossville, Sullivan County was chosen for the jury pool because it was hoped that the distance from the scene of the crime would mitigate any sensational news coverage.
 
When jury selection was completed on Saturday afternoon, Daniel dismissed the jury, admonishing them not to talk with anyone about the specifics of the case, and ordering them to report for transportation to Crossville the next afternoon.
 
“Pack enough clothes for two weeks,” he told them.
 
Before a crowded courtroom which held members of the Burks and Looper families, as well as District Attorney Bill Gibson’s mother, the prosecutor stood before the 16-member panel and opened the state’s case against Byron Looper. The state would show, Gibson said, that Looper wanted power and that he would do anything – including murder — to achieve it.
 
“Looper is a man obsessed with a burning desire for power,” Gibson began. “He knew he didn’t have a chance in the fair election to defeat Tommy Burks, and that caused him to formulate a plan to resolve this election with a bullet instead of a ballot.”
 
He told them they would hear from a Hardee’s restaurant employee who could testify that Looper was the angry customer in her restaurant a half-hour before the shooting. Wesley Rex would testify how he saw Looper at the scene of the crime when Burks was shot, and Joe Bond would tell them how Looper had confessed.
 
Other witnesses would testify to Looper’s predilection for violence as an electoral strategy. Those witnesses included a political consultant from Louisiana who answered an ad in Campaigns & Elections magazine placed by Looper. The consultant turned down the job after Looper said the cost of winning his race was only 35 cents — the price of a bullet, Looper clarified.
 
Ken Poston opened for the defense and was severely limited in his options to refute the state’s circumstantial case. Poston had no plausible defense to present, so he painted Looper as the victim of conspiratorial political enemies. Looper was a zealot, Poston admitted. He did like to attack the system and he held a take-no-prisoners approach. But Looper was no murderer, he said.
 
“He was the first Republican elected in Putnam County, at least in recent memory, and he made quite a name for himself, but not a good name,” said Poston. “He had a bombastic campaign style, a way of offending anyone that was status quo, and he did it repeatedly.”
 
Why Tommy Burks would be sacrificed by the cabal when any victim would suffice was never brought up.
 
Opening statements took most of the morning, and after a short break, Gibson began laying out the state’s case in more detail.
 
Wheeling in a television set and VCR, Gibson warned the court that what he was about to show might be disturbing to some, but he was not showing the tape for shock value. In a silent courtroom, he pushed the play button on the VCR and took the jury back to October 19, 1998. In sometimes erratic, amateurish quality, the tape showed Burks slumped over the steering wheel of his pickup truck, the interior of which was covered with blood. The tape had no sound, which added to its eerie quality. Burks’s corpse could plainly be seen, his foot still on the brake, his face mottled with blood and gunshot residue.
 
The state presented 34 witnesses during its phase of the trial, everyone from the Hardee’s manager to employees of Looper’s office, in an effort to link Looper to the crime.
 
No witness was more damaging to Looper’s fate than Joe Bond. He spent two-and-a-half hours on the stand, but no matter how hard Poston and Cordova tried, they could not crack a hole in the Marine’s story.
 
Gibson and his team took four days to lay out their case, painting a strong circumstantial version of what happened. They were never able to put the gun in Looper’s hands, and never explained how gunshot residue could be found in a car that they said was not driven to the murder scene.
 
First up for the defense was Looper’s ally, John Bowden. The 73-year-old ex-mayor took the stand and Poston used his testimony to try and wedge in that concept of reasonable doubt. On cross-examination Bowden admitted he had lied to the TBI about where he bought the gun. It was a police issue weapon available only to peace officers. One of Bowden’s cop buddies completed the straw purchase. Bowden acknowledged his timeline of events in his sale of the weapon was hazy. Most importantly for the defense, Bowden claimed Looper had never touched the handgun.
 
With the last of the 19 defense witnesses done testifying, Daniel began closing arguments a little more than a week after the trial began. Assistant District Attorneys Tony Craighead and David Patterson laid out the prosecution’s case point by point.
 
“He had a method to win the election,” Craighead told the jurors. By killing Burks, Looper would be the only name on the ballot. He was the only person who stood to gain by Tommy Burks’ murder. Witnesses could place Looper in Monterey on the morning of the slaying, both before and after the event.
 
As if eyewitness identification wasn’t enough, Joe Bond testified that Looper confessed the crime to him, prosecutors argued. Other witnesses told the jury about how Looper had thought about killing an opponent to win a race, as well.
 
McCracken Poston made the defense’s closing statement. They never linked Looper to the murder weapon, he said. The prosecution laid out a fine circumstantial case, but when it came right down to it, they weren’t able to finish it. Poston said the evidence shows that Looper was a victim of a conspiracy, because the loose ends just didn’t come together.
 
There were still a few hours of daylight left when the jury announced it had reached a verdict. They had weighed the evidence and deliberated for a little more than 21/2 hours when Judge Daniel recalled the parties to his courtroom. When the verdict of “Guilty” was announced, Looper stood ramrod straight and showed no emotion. His only demonstration was to look back toward his mother and brother and offer a small, reassuring smile.
 
The jury’s work was not done, because in Tennessee, the panel had to recommend a sentence to Daniel. He had some latitude to deviate, but that was unusual. It took another half-hour, but the jury returned to the courtroom and recommended that Byron Looper spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance for parole. Had they chosen the parole option, Looper would have been eligible for parole when he was 87 years old.
 
Again, Looper showed no emotion as the decision was announced.
 
In 2013, Byron Looper was found dead in his prison cell from an apparent heart attack. Although he had been placed in restraints earlier for assaulting a pregnant civilian prison employee, he was not restrained at the time of his death. The subsequent investigation concluded his death was from natural causes. He was 48 years old.

When Morons Kill

Jean Gianini, prison mugsht

Ignorance of the law is no defense to a criminal accusation — knowing the rules that govern us is the duty of each person in a civilized society. Because our justice system is based on the premise that we are aware of what we are doing when we do it, a lack of understanding of the law does not excuse illegal behavior. For most defendants who find themselves in the dock this is not an issue; they knew what they were doing was wrong, they just hoped they would get away with it.
 
Ignorance of the law takes on a new meaning when we examine how intelligence affects a defendant’s ability to know right from wrong. The criminal justice system has never really figured out how to deal with criminals who lack the brainpower to know they were breaking the law and modern juries show little tolerance for any mental issues, whether insanity or developmental disability, as a defense. It was not until 1989 that the U.S. Supreme Court reluctantly agreed with a majority of states with capital punishment that executing intellectually disabled criminals was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Many states have eliminated diminished capacity defenses that hinge on the defendant’s mental acuity.
 
At the beginning of the 20th century, a rural jury in upstate New York was presented with this conundrum when it had to determine whether 16-year-old Jean Gianini was responsible for what appeared to be a cold-blooded, calculated murder of his former schoolteacher, or if his level of intellectual disability prevented him from knowing the nature and quality of his act. His case marked the first time that scientific tests and testimony were used in court to show a defendant was not smart enough to know the wrongfulness of his action.
 
“The verdict of not guilty on the ground of criminal imbecility,” said one expert, “recognizes that weakness of mind, as an excuse for crime, is of the same importance as disease of mind; puts feeble-mindedness in the same category with insanity, and requires that it like insanity be considered in all discussions of responsibility.”
 
But many people at the time thought Gianini got away with murder and were outraged at the verdict. To most the slaying appeared to be a premeditated killing with clear steps taken to further the crime and avoid capture. But with a chain of circumstantial evidence that included more than one weak link, each time the prosecutor presented his theory of why Gianini did x or said y, the defense had an answer based on scientific study of imbecility.
 
The defense’s alternative theory of the crime convinced the jury, which acquitted Gianini of first-degree murder. Rather than to the electric chair, Gianini was sent to a state hospital for the criminally insane where he remained the rest of his life.

The Crime and Confession

The facts surrounding Lida Beecher’s murder were never contested by the defense.
 
Early on March 28, 1914, a Herkimer County farmer was making his rounds delivering milk. About a mile from the village of Poland, he saw signs of a violent struggle in the snow and slush. A trail of blood and footprints led from the road. Following the tracks he found a body, which proved to be that of Lida Beecher, one of the schoolteachers in the village of Poland. Her killer made a half-hearted attempt to hide her body behind a hedgerow several yards from where the killing occurred. Her umbrella and hat were found at the site of the initial assault.
 
Lida BeecherSuspicion quickly centered on Gianini, who was known to harbor ill will toward the victim.
 
Numerous witnesses saw Gianini and Lida together the night previous and watched the two of them walk out of town toward Gianini’s house. Others saw Gianini with the wrench used in the killing, and more than one reported how he talked of killing Lida for revenge.
 
A chronic truant who was disruptive in class when he was there, Gianini had been expelled from school and court-ordered to attend a regimented boarding school run by Catholic priests, and he incorrectly blamed Lida for his expulsion. He had been pestering her for weeks to meet with his father in hopes that she would allow Gianini to return to the local school — a wish she had no power to grant.
 
Based on this evidence, police went to arrest Gianini, only to learn that he had run away that morning. He was found 4 miles away and willingly returned to Poland and the police station even though he knew he was a suspect in a murder.
 
When he was being brought back to Poland by a friend of his father, the man said, “You have got something beside skipping out now staring you in the face.”
 
Gianini replied, “They can’t give me but ten years.” The witnesses to his interrogation testified that when Gianini was told that “he had murder staring him in the face,” he expressed no fear and appeared not to care at all.
 
Gianini was taken to the Poland police station where testimony at his trial revealed that the youth was strip-searched so authorities could check for bloodstains on his clothing or wounds that might have come from a death struggle. There were none, but Gianini’s coat was missing a button identical to one found near the crime scene.
 
Immediately upon undressing, Gianini offered a spontaneous confession of the crime, admitting quite proudly and with no trace of regret or remorse that he was Lida Beecher’s killer.
 
He was arrested on the spot and a few months later, Gianini’s first-degree murder trial began in Herkimer County.

Idiots, Imbeciles and Morons

A brief lesson in early developmental psychology is necessary before we dive deeper into this case.
 
In the late 19th Century a pair of French psychologists created a reasonably reliable way of measuring a person’s comparative intelligence or “mental age.” Still taken by thousands of American students in various forms today (the most common being the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale), the Binet-Simon Test of Intelligence was used to identify the “feeble-minded” who were, in the words of psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard, “the person who shows in every movement and action, if not in his very face, that he is ‘lacking,’ is ‘not all there,’ is ‘not quite right,’ or whatever may be the expression that we apply to those unfortunate ones, of whom there are, sad to say, always one or more in every community.”
 
The terms “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron” had scientific distinctions at the time. An idiot was a person whose mental age was 3 or under. An imbecile was a person whose mental age was pegged between 3 and 12 years, while a moron was “a high-grade imbecile capable of earning a living under favorable circumstances, but is incapable from mental defect, existing from birth or from an early age, (a) of competing on equal terms with his normal fellows, or (b) of managing himself or his affairs with ordinary prudence.” Anyone whose mental age was above 13 by the time they reached that chronological age was considered normal.
 
The words have changed over the decades, but the definition of what was called imbecility, feeble-mindedness, retardation and most recently developmental disability, put forward by the British Commission on the Feeble-Minded, quoted above, is in general consistent with the American Psychiatric Association definition of Intellectual Development Disorder published in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders vol. 5, which defines IDD as a condition “with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains.”
 
Very simply, the Binet-Simon test measured the subject’s mental acuity against the performance of what an average child of that age is able to accomplish. Binet and Simon conducted interviews with hundreds of French schoolchildren, which they used to set the scale. The children were asked questions that did not have right or wrong answers, but would have more in-depth responses correlated to age.
 
Dr. Henry GoddardFor example, the children were asked to define “charity.” Beginning at around 10 years old, the subjects could offer a cogent response. Binet and Simon found that younger children would respond with something like “Charity is giving,” while by far most 12-year-olds not only said charity was “giving,” but also included the concept of giving to the less fortunate.
 
“The point is not always that this answer (‘charity is giving’) is or is not technically correct, but that it is not the kind of answer which a child of the specified age (16) should give,” Goddard testified at Gianini’s trial. “Therefore, it indicates that he is not of that age, but below it.”
 
Goddard was a respected alienist, or psychologist, and head of the New Jersey Institute for the Feeble-Minded. He was also a proponent of the now-discarded theory of eugenics and argued strongly for sterilizing the developmentally disabled which he believed would eventually eliminate imbecility. He also said on the stand that Gianini’s predilection for masturbation was evidence of mental defect because it demonstrates “cowardice” and is not something “well-endowed young men” do. As a result of these ignorant views based on Victorian values rather than science, in counterpoint to his efforts to help imbeciles receive justice, Goddard leaves a mixed legacy.

The Prosecution’s Case

As is typical of trials involving affirmative defenses — where the defendant admits the act but attempts to show there were mitigating factors that render the act non-criminal — the prosecution’s presentation of the facts of the murder went quickly. Establishing motive, means and opportunity took just a few witnesses and the state’s case was presented in two days. The only reason it took that long was the number of witnesses put forward by the State to bolster its case which prompted frequent objections by the defense.
 
The only version of the murder we have is Gianini’s confession, which he gave freely and spontaneously after his arrest:

I went to school to Lida Beecher and had trouble with her and wanted to get revenge. I met her above the hotel and walked up the street with her up beyond the stone quarry; she had been a-coming to see my folks about school and was a-coming up to see them last night and I told her they lived up the hill, and when we got up there on the left side of the road, I hit her with a monkey wrench that I got out of my father’s barn. I had the wrench in my pocket when I went up.
After I had hit her about three times with the wrench, I hit her with a knife several times, to be sure to finish her, and then I took her over in the lot; I dragged her by the foot; and then I went home and got there about 7:30.
The knife I stabbed her with was one that belonged to my father and I took it home and put it in the pantry drawer.
I left the wrench somewhere near where I hit her. When I hit her first, she did not scream but moaned.
She said she thought it was quite a ways and she did not see any house.
I was not afraid when I got home; I was just as happy as I ever was and didn’t think anything about it as I thought I had revenge.

Gianini was referring to the ruse he employed to lure her to the murder site. He told her his father was building a new house further away from the town in an isolated area. When she began to suspect something was wrong and refused to go on, Gianini pulled out the wrench and hit her. Gianini stabbed Lida more than “several” times. The coroner counted 24 stab wounds to her chest and throat. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
 
The state argued that Gianini’s motive can be inferred from a look at his school history. More than a year before the murder, Gianini had been promoted — at the age of 14 or 15 — from the 5th to 6th grade, where Lida was the teacher. He became disruptive in class and was eventually expelled. Although she had little to do with that decision and letters written by Lida demonstrated that she was working to place him in a boarding school that could help him learn a trade, Gianini blamed her for the expulsion. His hatred of Lida can easily be understood, writes Goddard in an article on the case:
 
“The boy did not get along nearly so well after the change and he dropped back in his studies. His teacher was obliged to report him a number of times to the principal, who twice whipped him with a piece of rubber hose,” he wrote. “Failing to make his studies under the new standard, he was made to occupy a special seat apart from the other pupils, at the instance, if not the actual order, of Miss Beecher.”
 
Gianini’s “special seat” was next to her desk facing the wall.
 
At one time Gianini said he would shoot Lida if he had a pistol, one witness testified, while four others offered examples of more general threats to Lida by Gianini.
 
Two days prior to the crime, Gianini was heard speaking harshly to Lida. After she told him she did not know when she would be talking to his father about returning to school, Gianini shouted, “Aw, I don’t believe you intend to come at all, you will wait until summer time, and go home and then it will be too late.”
 
The strongest part of the state’s case was demonstrating Gianini had opportunity to commit the crime, which it also used to show he was planning it in advance.
 
Witnesses established that Jean confronted Lida three consecutive nights demanding that she speak to his father at that moment. Twice she refused, but the third time she agreed. Whether or not she had planned to make the visit that fateful night or was a reluctant participant was not established at trial.
 
Several Poland residents saw Gianini with the large, rusty monkey wrench in the days before the crime and the night he committed it. When asked why he was carrying the unwieldy tool, Gianini said, “I have use for it.”
 
The pair was seen walking in the direction of Jean’s farmhouse around 7:15 p.m. on the night in question, and Jean was not seen again for about 30 minutes when he returned home without showing any indication of having just murdered a woman.
 
He ran an errand for his father and then, as he frequently did, slipped out in the middle of the night to jump a freight train. When he discovered that the train had already gone, he returned home and went to bed. The prosecution posited that this was an attempt to flee.
 
Early on the morning after the murder, Gianini headed to the nearby farm where he was employed, as if nothing had happened. When the farmer went looking for his employee around 9 a.m., Gianini could not be found. His father, who had the Juvenile Court declare his son delinquent because he was fond of hopping boxcars and leaving town, called the nearby station where Gianini usually caught the train, where the boy was found and returned to Poland.
 
Beyond those facts, the only indication of what occurred during the crime came from the defendant’s statements to police, on the witness stand, and to the psychiatrists who examined him. The admissions of having committed the act are all consistent, which is normal when a suspect is telling the truth.

The Defense Case


As Gianini had already confessed to the crime and admitted as much in court, and because his defense was imbecility, the entirety of the testimony in his favor came from witnesses to his bizarre and age-inappropriate behavior and experts in feeble-mindedness. The facts presented are bleak.
 
Jean Gianini was born in December 1897, the third of three children to Charles and Sara McVey Gianini. Jean’s older sister was, at least at the time of his trial, “normal.” His older brother, Charles, had been profoundly developmentally disabled — an idiot, according to Goddard:

Charles lived to be but seven years of age and during his lifetime did not learn to speak, but merely made guttural sounds; he did not walk, but moved about when seated on the floor, pushing himself sidewise, and finally shortly before his death tottered about. His death occurred when he was about seven years old. He ate gluttonously and his death was due to asphyxiation, choking due to taking in trachea foreign matter while vomiting contents of an overloaded stomach.

Genetics plays a significant role in determining whether a child is born with an intellectual disability, and mental issues ran rampant through the Gianini and McVey families.
 
Less than a year into her marriage, 20-year-old Sara began to lose her grip on sanity, trial testimony showed. The symptoms manifested themselves during her pregnancy with Charles, according to Goddard.
 

Before her first child was born she broke down mentally and was probably never ‘right’ after that time. “Prior to her marriage she was bright, vivacious, stylish, and accomplished in music. Shortly after her marriage she began to become untidy in her appearance, morose, depressed, and indifferent to her child, took no care of him, and said that while she wanted to die, she was going to live forever. She also said she thought that her face was black and that she was a negress, that she would not go into the street because she was black.

Mrs. Gianini began to self-medicate using alcohol and became a “dipsomaniac” or alcoholic.
 
“She became addicted to the use of liquor, first lager beer and subsequently whisky and brandy. She made pledges, administered by priests, only to be broken,” Goddard wrote.
 
Gianini had little contact with his mother in his first year, which one’s gut instinct tells is rarely a good thing. Mrs. Gianini died in June 1899 in the St. Anne’s Retreat Sanitarium. The causes of death are listed as “meningitis, alcoholic heart failure.”
 
Whatever other impairments he may have had, Gianini was very likely a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome based on his mother’s alcoholic drinking during her pregnancy. He was malnourished and weighed about five pounds. Gianini was placed with a foster family where he lived until he was 6; whether this was a private arrangement or a state act is unknown.
 
He did not speak until he was 5 years old, one of the defense experts testified, but “made sounds which resembled yells.” The doctor also said Gianini was late to learn to walk.
 
For the first few years of school, Gianini progressed like his peers, but was held back several times in fifth grade. To Goddard this indicates that Gianini had reached his ultimate intellectual age.


In the last days of his school life Jean dropped, to a very marked degree, in his standing in his studies. This falling off in Jean’s ability was attributed to his teacher. As a matter of fact, the falling off was due to the fact that Jean had reached his limit in the fifth grade. He attained to that height because of a good memory, which is characteristic of many imbeciles and is in no way indicative of normal intelligence. It is also very common for children of this type to get through the fifth grade and fail in the sixth. They have mentality enough to carry them to that point, but not farther.

The defense experts presented a compelling case of a 16-year-old youth with the mental acuity of a 10- or 11-year-old. Other testimony indicated that his relationship with his father was contentious, he held a deep hatred of his stepmother, and was the butt of jokes. One time, his father testified, Gianini took a model train set and tried to build tracks from kindling wood.
 
“He couldn’t make it work, of course, and we all laughed at him,” Charles Gianini testified. He said he considered his son’s attempts “irrational.”
 
“And yet you laughed at him and thought his actions were amusing?” the prosecutor asked, to which the witness had no reply.
 
The crux of the defense’s case, however, was the rebuttal of the State’s allegations. When confronted with an almost purely circumstantial case, the defense strategy is to raise reasonable doubt by proposing an equally plausible scenario. Gianini’s defense team confronted each link of the circumstantial chain head on.
 
There was no premeditation and to assume so was to misunderstand what caused Gianini’s behavior, its experts argued.
 
“The result can be accounted for in another way. Jean being an imbecile, it is entirely possible that he had no premeditation of murder at all,” Goddard testified. “On the contrary, it is possible that as he walked up the hill with Lida Beecher he had no more thought of killing her than of committing suicide. Indeed, it is much more plausible from all we know of imbeciles, and of boys of his physical development, that there was an entirely different purpose. That purpose was probably sexual.”
 
Goddard recounted episodes where Gianini’s behavior toward girls was more like that of a boy at the onset of puberty, than those of a 16-year-old. Rather than behave toward the opposite sex maturely (albeit awkwardly), Gianini would tease the girls and generally make himself a nuisance. Goddard blamed the inequality of Gianini’s physical and mental ages for his inability to communicate on a mature level with women.
 
When he was 14, Gianini was found in the woods undressing two young girls. When confronted, he said they were going to play “Indians, and Indians are naked.” Goddard used this as more proof of Gianini’s imbecility.

That is to say, such acts are, by the uninitiated, not considered sex acts at all… Dismissing the possibility that his explanation was invented to conceal a definitely conscious sexual impulse, let us admit that he gave his real reason for the act. Still it is clear to all who are familiar with sex psychology that the subconscious reason for playing Indian in that way was a sexual one.

The defense’s experts argued that Gianini was lying to investigators when he said he wanted revenge, and theorized that he lured Lida away from town for some sort of sexual encounter. His intentions rebuffed, probably quite strongly, he lost his temper and using the wrench and knife as weapons of opportunity, he murdered Lida Beecher.
 
They pointed out that while Gianini’s statements to investigators and examiners were generally consistent, he embellished his story with each telling, something the experts said was common among imbeciles.
 
Rejecting the prosecutor’s theory that moving Lida’s body proved Gianini was trying to cover up his crime, Goddard pointed out that after hiding Lida’s body behind some bushes, “he then went back into the road, making new tracks, which he made no effort to cover. Nor did he make any effort to cover the old tracks or the blood spots that were left along in the snow. Neither did he make any attempt to hide the hat nor the umbrella nor the broken comb which were left in the road.”
 
The prosecution got Goddard to admit Gianini said he knew the difference between life and death, and the difference between taking a human life and killing an animal, the basic level of knowledge of the nature and quality of the act.
 
The eminent alienist responded that Gianini knew those distinctions, but not that causing death is considered wrong by society.
 
“Why hide the body, then?” asked the prosecutor.
 
His behavior showed “he knew he did something he ought not to have done, and rather not be caught at,” the doctor replied.
 
As for Gianini’s ability to recount a similar story every time he was asked about the murder, Goddard was nonplussed. Calling the youth “a braggart and a coward, with an excellent memory, a great reader — particularly interested in stories of excitement and crime,” Goddard pointed out that Gianini’s statements became more detailed over time, but rather than recall obscure details, Gianini embellished the murder itself.
 
“His confession is colored by his desire to show off and shine in the limelight,” Goddard said. “Gianini’s testimony is unreliable, because he was talking for effect. He is of the type that loves show and notoriety.”
 
In reality, what probably saved Gianini’s life was not that jurors considered him too dumb to be guilty of murder, but that they had been advised before deliberating that if they found Gianini not guilty by reason of imbecility, he would not walk free. Goddard made it clear in his testimony and in a subsequent article on the case that he considered Gianini too dangerous to ever be released, which helped sway the jury.
 
We reach this conclusion by looking at two similar cases where diagnosed morons were accused of murder and used the same defense as Gianini.
 
In one case from Oregon, a stalker shot the woman who had scorned his advances and explained his justification as “if I cannot have her, then I wanted to make sure no one did.” Just like in Gianini’s case, his spontaneous confession to police makes his crime look planned and well-executed. Medical experts using the Binet-Simon tests came to the conclusion that the man, Fred Tronson, “showed the the crude brutality of a somewhat lower grade defective.”
 
His lawyers told the jurors that one way or another Tronson would never be a free man again, and he was acquitted.
 
Around the same time, Roland Pennington, a diagnosed moron, stood trial in Pennsylvania for participating in the murder of the lover of a friend’s wife. The facts in his case clearly indicate he was only interested in helping his friend, who had kept after him for weeks to aid in the crime. Pennington expressed reluctance to kill, so his co-conspirator told him, “You start it, I’ll finish it.” After the actual killer promised to give him the “$1000 bill” the victim carried and explained that was a one followed by three zeroes, he agreed. When it turned out that the victim had only $14, Pennington did not complain but took $7 and a watch that he pawned for two bucks.
 
For his act he was convicted and executed.
 
After the verdict his jurors said they were loathe to convict the imbecile, but when presented with a binary choice of what they thought was liberty or death, they opted for death, not knowing that Pennington’s freedom was never a possibility.
 
Newspaper reports said that Pennington entered the death chamber barely able to stand, only walking with the aid of his guards and covering his eyes with his hands so he would not see the electric chair.