Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Villisca: Mass Murder in Iowa

A Different Story

However, before the trial, Kelly recanted his confession, and his attorney, W. E. Mitchell, would dismiss it in court as the result of an intense inquisition that had lasted a full night, undertaken to "shield" someone else (a statement suggestive of political connections). He claimed that after the ordeal, "Kelly was more dead than alive, more insane than sane."

Kelly's trial began in September 1917, prosecuted by state Attorney General H. M. Havner, and it was to be an indirect trial of George Jones as well, since Mitchell proceeded to use the state senator as a foil: if there was evidence to suggest that he or his hired gun was the culprit, that provided reasonable doubt for Kelly's involvement. In fact, the defense had hired detective J. N. Wilkerson, the detective who firmly believed in Jones's guilt.

However, former Deputy W. C. McQueen, who had questioned Kelly during an arrest in South Dakota in 1914 for sending obscene materials in the mail, said that Kelly had made a similar confession at that time. So did a snitch who had shared a cell with Kelly before Kelly was sent off to a psychiatric institution.

For Mitchell, the challenge was to prove that Kelly was of unsound mind and had perhaps developed such an obsession with the Villisca incident that he'd come to have delusions about himself as the killer. Apparently, he'd been known to ramble on and on about the murders, having developed this obsession after getting a tour of the home late in June of 1912. At that time, he'd imagined himself a detective and had claimed he'd received training at Scotland Yard. He hadn't.

May Stillinger
May Stillinger

Kelly's wife testified that her husband had a weak mind and that in another incident in which he'd confessed — an arson he'd actually been at home with her. Thus, falsely confessing was not uncharacteristic for him.

Aside from the confession, a dislike of children, and the coincidence of his hand preference, there was no physical evidence that actually tied Kelly to the murders. Both sides rested and the jury went to deliberate. Since the attorneys had failed to query the jurors on their opinion about capital punishment, execution was out of the question.

The result was a hung jury: they couldn't come to an agreement. Eleven men wanted to acquit Kelly and one wanted to find him not guilty by reason of insanity. He was tried a second time in November, and this time he was acquitted. However, since he'd been tried for only the murder of Lena Stillinger, it was possible to bring more charges against him until one of them stuck. But that never happened. Kelly was a free, if deeply disturbed, man. He said he was going to write a book called A Pawn in the Game, but he appears to have ended up in a psychiatric institution.

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