Saturday, April 10, 2010

An Explanation to Remember: The Pardon of Wright Lancaster

William McKinley’s pardon of Wright Lancaster may have featured the most detailed “official” justifications for an individual act of clemency in the history of the Presidency. Lancaster’s pardon is explained over the course of fourteen pages of the Annual Report of the Attorney General for 1901. In sharp contrast, the typical explanation for an act of clemency that year (and most of the years before and after) took up all of three or four lines.

Lancaster was actually just one of several “prominent” individuals indicted for conspiracy and the murder of John C. Forsyth. He, Luther A. Hall (an “active” and “somewhat unscrupulous attorney”) and Charles Clements were charged with the murder and sentenced to life imprisonment while others were simply found guilty on the charge of conspiracy.

The case began when Clements and Richard Lowry visited the home of one Lem Burch for three weeks. The primary goal of the visit was to meet (for purposes of identification) John C. Forsyth. Forsyth was an “agent” of Norman W. Dodge, a New Yorker (or “Northern Man”) who legally held the paper title to almost four hundred thousand acres of "pine lands" in Georgia. The Annual Report noted the land was “sparsely settled” and “peculiarly adapted for squatters and squatter’s claims.” That is to say, property lines and boundaries were “little known” and a squatter might remain in the area “a long time undisturbed.” When a rightful owner (like Mr. Dodge) came along, there was always the possibility tempers might flair. Forsyth controlled and managed the lands for Mr. Dodge and also handled any litigation related to the property.

After Clements and Lowry caught a glimpse of Forsyth, Burch offered them six hundred dollars to kill him. So, on October 7, 1890, Clements and Lowry set off to murder Forsyth. After traveling some time, Clements took up a position in a deserted shanty and Lowry made his way to Forsyth’s house. Forsyth was sitting with his back to the window when Lowry removed his shoes and stepped softly onto the porch. Lowry then shattered the glass with a shotgun blast that also hit Forsyth in the back of the head. The gunman rejoined Clements and both men reported back to Burch who made a down payment on the six hundred dollar fee. The men then separated.

The next day an armed posse pursued a well-known leader among the squatters and shot him dead. Later, however, a man named Bohannan claimed that, one week after the murder, another man named Moore told him how Wright Lancaster had asked Clements and Lowry to commit a murder and funded the enterprise. Burch and Clements pled guilty and confessed as to the details of the crime at trial. Burch claimed Wright Lancaster had hired the two assassins and sent them to his house. But while the testimony of Bohannan and Burch clearly implicated Lancaster, Lancaster vehemently denied making the remarks and Moore denied repeating any such remarks to Bohannan. A parade of defendants, testimony, assertions and denials resulted in a court record of over one thousand pages!

The New York Times reported the jury’s return of a guilty verdict was “a surprise” to the many onlookers who “generally expected” a mistrial. On January 6, 1891, Judge Emery Speer sentenced Lancaster, Hall and Clements to life in the Columbus (Ohio) penitentiary. By 1901, Luther Hall had died in the federal penitentiary. Clements and Lancaster had served ten years of their life sentences, but Attorney General John William Griggs (only days from the end of his service in that position) was an aggressive advocate of executive clemency on Lancaster's behalf.

Griggs was beside himself that Lancaster was “substantially” convicted on the testimony of someone so “utterly depraved” as Burch. In his opinion, Burch was so “devoid of moral conscience” that he had “few parallels [in] the history of criminals.” Burch’s hiring of assassins was “cowardly, despicable and foolish” and, if he had had “sufficient sense and intelligence” he would have known Forsyth’s murder would accomplish no worthy end. His testimony was simply not “competent.” Lancaster, on the other hand, was from a “good family” and (at the time of the crime) “engaged to be married to a respectable and estimable young lady.” He enjoyed the “respect” of his neighbors and acquaintances. Unlike Burch, Lancaster did have “sufficient sense and intelligence.” On top of all that, Lancaster was the County Sheriff.

Judge Speer also wrote a passionate letter to President McKinley. It recommended clemency for both Lancaster and Clements since further confinement of the men would serve “no public purpose.” The letter also argued that a pardon might further strengthen “national authority” in the eyes of those living in the area by reminding citizens that “even in the presence of crimes of the highest magnitude there resides in our national system that principle of benignity which, when the objects of the law have been accomplished, can and will accord mercy when severity no longer serves.” In a distinctly more personal touch, Speer’s letter mentioned that “mercy” was a “well-known characteristic” of the President’s “heart.”

Attorney General Griggs made a somewhat cryptic, passing reference in the Annual Report to “several other instances” in which the trial court fell into “serious error,” but he strongly agreed with at least half of the judge’s plea for clemency. So, he advised the President that Lancaster deserved an immediate, unconditional pardon whereas Clements “deserved all the punishment imposed.” President McKinley followed the recommendation on March 26, 1901.

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