Getting Away with Murder on the Texas Frontier:
Notorious Killings and Celebrated Trials.
By Bill Neal, Introduction by Gordon Morris Bakken. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2006. xix, 308 pages. 49 b/w photos, 3 illustrations, 1 map. ISBN 0896725790 $27.95 cloth http://www.ttup.ttu.edu/ firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Neal tells us how they did it. Neal has been a prosecuting and defense attorney for decades in West Texas, out where the lawless Wild West is still warm. He’s not the Bill O’Neal of a similar topic.
Laws are one thing, but the rules of popular justice, vigilantism, absconding witnesses, a quick getaway, fear of retribution, financial interests of the jury, race, the statute of limitations, personal friendship, the Victorian code, inexperienced prosecutors, lynching before justice ran its course, and, well, “didn’t the victim deserve it anyway” all played their roles. Neal focuses on legal matters, especially in the courtroom, generally cases you’ve not heard of before – they’re outrageous.
Neal populates his book with bank robbers, sheriff murderers, knife-wielders, gamblers, poison artists, angry mothers, and mail-order brides. In amongst them are lawyers, judges, and sheriffs trying to bring community stability.
Friendship goes a long way. Bill Richards in 1891 aided the legal “organization” of Cottle County, so his friend could get a friendlier trial environment in the new county.
Imagine in 1916, the guy who entered a crowded courtroom, shot and killed another guy on trial for murder, and wounded a witness and defense attorney for good measure. After four trails, he was scot-free. Neal brings us forward. Even in 1940, after a car thief- murderer confessed and was convicted, an appellate judge reversed the matter because he was not so sure that kicking and stomping somebody (namely Mrs. McHenry) to death was not based on too much inference.
You shake you head today over some outrageous dismissal, but that’s along tradition.
Neal’s examples are fresh and well written.