Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jail Birds: The Story of Robert Stroud

Facing the Judge

As soon as Elizabeth learned of the murder, she immediately left Juneau for Kansas and on her arrival she hired lawyer General L.C. Boyle to defend her son. Although Boyle had a reputation as one of the best defense attorneys in the state, he knew he had a difficult case ahead of him. After all, Robert did kill Turner in front of over one thousand convicts and several guards.

In May of 1916, attorneys for the defense and prosecution presented their cases to Judge John C. Pollock and a jury of twelve. Both sides produced witnesses that included guards and inmates who testified as eyewitnesses to the murder. After only four days of hearings, Robert was found guilty of first-degree murder. On May 27, Robert was sentenced to execution by hanging to be carried out on July 21 of that same year.

Boyle immediately began the appeals process with the Federal Circuit Court. In December 1916, the entire trial was invalidated on the basis that the members of the jury had not stated whether they wished to impose the full measures of the law. Another trial was set for the following year.

During the time in between trials, Elizabeth worked frantically to enlist the help of anyone who would listen to prevent the death penalty from being handed down a second time. Robert escaped execution on a technicality once before, but she knew he would most likely not be as fortunate a second time. Elizabeths main argument was that state executions had been abolished for several decades and it was unjust to reinstate the inhumane law.

After petitioning various womens organizations and penal reform groups, she found the support she so desperately hoped for. According to Gaddis, the groups vocally expressed their opinions concerning capital punishment and even went as far as to request the jury panel to withhold from issuing the death penalty. The protests lead by Elizabeth enraged Judge Pollock to the point that his objectivity began to falter. Eventually, he was disqualified and Judge J. W. Woodrough replaced him during the second trial, which took place on May 22, 1917.

At the trial, the defense team attempted to prove that Robert was mentally unbalanced and not responsible for the crime he committed. If they were able to show that he was mentally incompetent, there was a chance that they could win an acquittal. Several psychiatrists supported the defenses case stating that Robert was indeed insane and psychopathic.

Another strategy utilized by the defense team was to prove that Robert acted in self defense at the time he killed Turner. They presented eyewitnesses that claimed that Turner threatened the defendant with a club prior to his murder. Eyewitnesses further suggested that Turner had a bad reputation in the prison because he constantly used his club to threaten inmates.    

Conversely, the prosecution team tried to prove that Robert was a cold-blooded killer who was mentally fit enough to have been aware of the consequences of his actions. They enlisted the expert testimony of several psychiatrists who supported the prosecutions stance by diagnosing Robert as sane and mentally competent. Moreover, the prosecution provided key testimony from inmates and guards who further suggested that Robert was an unfeeling and aloof person incapable of remorse for the murder of Turner. 

On May 28, 1917 the jury deliberated and after several hours they returned a verdict of guilty, yet they withheld a sentence of capital punishment. Relieved that her sons life was spared a second time, Elizabeth embraced Robert as others in the courtroom looked on in disbelief. Instead of receiving a sentence of execution this time, Robert was given a life sentence.

Although Robert was pleased that his life was spared, he was less pleased with how the trial was conducted. He believed that the hearing was unfair because the defense was unable to present critical evidence or subpoena witnesses that supported his case. Moreover, the state was able to use evidence against him that was illegally confiscated from him without his permission or a court order. With nothing else to lose, with the exception of his life, he decided to once again challenge the system.

Roberts attorneys immediately appealed the ruling, stating that the defendant was denied his constitutional rights within the trial. Once again, like in the first hearing, the trial was deemed invalid by the U.S. Supreme Court. A new trial was ordered and set for May 1918.

Judge Robert E. Lewis was appointed from Denver, Colorado to preside over the hearing. At the opening of the trial, Roberts attorneys failed to appear, which infuriated Lewis. He quickly appointed new lawyers to handle Roberts case and disqualified his previous lawyers.

Robert was shocked that his lawyers failed to appear. It appeared to him as if they had literally put his case on the backburner. Robert became even more shocked and angered when he learned that without his knowledge, his lawyers negotiated with the prosecution and agreed to have him enter a plea of guilty to second-degree murder.

Robert protested the plea that was decided for him without his consent. Moreover, there was concern that the new lawyers would have little if any time to prepare a case on his behalf in time for the hearing. Realizing that Robert was in an unusual predicament, the judge decided to continue the trial at a later date.

In June 1918, Roberts third trial began. Testimony from the earlier trials was presented along with some new evidence including eyewitnesses to the murder who testified for the defense and evidence from the prison doctor who testified on behalf of the prosecution. After less than a week, both sides presented their closing arguments and the jury began the deliberation process.  

On June 28, 1918 the jury returned its verdict, finding Robert guilty of first-degree murder. The jury further suggested that he be sentenced to execution by hanging. The judge swiftly reacted to the verdict by imposing the death sentence, with the execution to take place in November of that year.

Roberts lawyers immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who in turn issued a temporary delay of the execution until the case was analyzed. Finally, in November 1919 the Supreme Court reached a decision. They decided to uphold the death sentence imposed on Robert and disallowed any further hearings into the case. The execution was scheduled to take place on April 23, 1920.

In reaction to the judgment, Elizabeth sought the only option available to her that could possibly save her son. As Robert awaited his death in a solitary confinement cell of the isolation ward, Elizabeth began filing a petition for Executive Clemency. Within the document, she spoke of Roberts troubled past and neglect from his father. She also told of the inaccuracies in the trials and how her sons incarceration negatively impacted the family.

To Elizabeths relief, President Woodrow Wilson received the petition and ordered a halt to the execution of her son. Roberts life was saved for a third time. His sentence was altered from death by hanging to life imprisonment. He had literally been saved by his mothers love and the compassion of a president.  

Shortly following the confirmation of his new sentence, Robert Stroud was transferred to the segregation cells of the isolation ward of the prison. He was restricted from associating with other prisoners and was allowed thirty minutes a day exercise within the isolation block courtyard. Many would have viewed the prison term as a death sentence in itself, however over time Robert would consider it to be a new lease on life.

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