Thursday, September 20, 2012

Solomon Hotema's Witch Hunt

Throughout his life, Solomon Hotema practiced law, served as a judge and discharged his duties “in an able and conscientious manner.” According to the Annual Report of the Attorney General for 1903, he was “a man of wealth and high standing among his people” (the Choctaw Indians) and “very charitable.” Yes, Hotema led an “exemplary” life, but for one small flaw.

The Annual Report noted, “for many years” he had been in the habit of “getting drunk.” A judge had also observed that, while drunk, Hotema “manifested a disposition to be combative and also a disposition to use deadly weapons.” For example, on the morning of April 14, 1899, Hotema threw back a few stiff ones and went to the house of one Vina Coleman. In the past, Hotema had “always been on most friendly terms” with Coleman. But, on this morning, Hotema was “more or less under the influence of liquor.” So, he took Coleman’s life with a single shotgun blast. A small child nearby was also injured. A startled fifteen-year old attempted to flee the premises. But, Hotema spotted him, then shot and “badly wounded” the boy. The merciless gunman then hopped on a horse and rode away from the Coleman residence. As he approached a second home, Hotema shot and killed a man. With more buckshot and plenty of time, he rode to a third house and shot and killed another woman.

Hotema’s trial was reported to have “caused a big stir” throughout “a large portion of the country” and, at trial, his lawyers certainly had their hands full. They quickly agreed to argue that their client was not guilty by reason of insanity. But the position of the defense was not simply based on the fact that Hotema was intoxicated at the time of the murders, or that he had a ten-year habit of intoxication and violence.

The defense informed the courtroom that Hotema’s community had been hit with an epidemic of meningitis nine years earlier. Many lives were lost and among them was Solomon Hotema’s little daughter. As the death toll reached “alarming proportions,” Hotema and others consulted an individual who lived nearby. This specialist (described by the New York Times as an “Indian witch doctor”) diagnosed the loss of life as the clear result of the practice of witchcraft in the community and, in a sense, he also prescribed a cure by specifically naming the individuals who were witches.

Hotema (who was also a Presbyterian minister) was surely familiar with the Biblical command to kill witches (Exodus 22:16) – a command which is much more forceful and clear than the typical warning against “strong drink” (see Proverbs 20:1). Indeed, in a statement that issued from jail shortly after the arrest, Hotema said he had always “been for peace” but the “evil practice of magic” had “been among the Indian people for a number of years.” Thus, he decided to “sacrifice” his own life “for the Lord’s cause.”

Hotema numbered himself with “the law breakers” and “humbly” submitted his “neck” to the gallows.” And the defense lawyers simply ran with it. Their client murdered three people in cold blood because he believed all of them were witches. The jury was left to implicitly wonder, “How insane was that?” Incidentally, there are no known indications of how the intoxicated Choctaw witch hunter felt about the spiritual status of the fifteen-year old boy or the infant.

Hotema was tried for the murder of the second and third victims and acquitted by the jury on the ground of insanity. When he was next tried for the murder of Vina Coleman, the jury was unable to agree upon a verdict. So, before the judge sent the jury away for deliberation at the end of the third trial, he gave careful instructions. First, he noted that, as far as guilt or innocence was concerned, it was “not material” whether the evidence showed Hotema had any specific “motive” for killing Coleman. If the killing was intentional and without justification, then there was simply no need to search for a “motive.” The jury was then told that Hotema’s “recent use of whiskey” could not be considered a “defense” in the case. Finally, the judge informed the jury Hotema may very well have had a sincere belief in witches. But, if Hotema also believed he had “the right” to kill persons whom he believed to be witches, he might have to suffer the consequences. The punishment would depend on whether the belief was the “insane delusion” of an unsound mind, or the “erroneous conclusion” of a sane person.

Hotema was found guilty of murder (without qualification) and, on February 14, 1902, sentenced to hang. His lawyers appealed the conviction, of course, and the sentence was reversed. But the result of Hotema's dramatic re-sentencing was nothing more than a new date with the hangman's rope. A second round of appeals went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Justice Peckham wrote the Opinion of the Court in the case Hotema v. U.S. (1902). Peckham and a unanimous Court held the trial judge had “properly laid down the law” in regard to the responsibility of Hotema and his “alleged mental condition.” Peckham also noted the “distinction” between the erroneous opinion and insane delusion was “somewhat difficult” and the line could not be “easily drawn.” But, the Justice explained, “it exists.” The most interesting section of the Court’s opinion came at the end. Peckham noted the trial court had committed “no legal” error and that the justices were therefore “bound” to affirm its judgment. But Peckham could not help but note that, before the third trial, one jury acquitted Hotema on “two distinct and separate murders” on the ground of insanity and a second jury could not reach a decision. It took a third jury (and a lot of instructing!) to convict Hotema. Peckham observed:
The question whether, upon consideration of the facts, the extreme penalty of the law should be carried out upon this defendant, is one which must be addressed to the consideration of the executive, as it is not one over which this court has jurisdiction.
Attorney General Philander Chase Knox picked up on the Court’s cue and called upon Dr. A.B. Richardson, a “noted alienist” and superintendent of the Government Hospital for the Insane, to review the case. Dr. Richardson submitted a “full and satisfactory” report that concluded the “tribal and racial characteristics” of Hotema had been “largely obliterated” by “education,” but were “renewed and strengthened by the use of intoxicants.” Hotema's sentence was thus commuted - to life imprisonment - on October 28, 1902.

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