Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Belle Gunness


The following day, both the defense and prosecution presented their closing statements. Worden asked for his client's life to be spared in light of what he called "circumstantial evidence," and Smith called for death per evidence sustaining "beyond a reasonable doubt." The jury, sullen faced, retreated to the discussion room.

They would make no decision that night, hopelessly divided. The following morning, Thanksgiving Day, they arose early, but an evening's rest still had not curbed the nagging doubts each of them had. The day waned before they came at last to a compromise.

Outside, La Porte waited in the rain and under the crackle of thunder. Late afternoon, the crowd in the street saw the courtroom lights flicker on and it drew like a tidal wave toward the steps of the public building. Up the stairs rushed the throng to where, at last, in that courtroom where so many had spent the last three weeks, they expected closure to their curiosity, maybe to their nightmares.

After the place quieted, Judge Richter eyed the twelve exasperated faces. "Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?"

The foreman stood. "We have, Your Honor, but I wish to make a statement before I deliver our verdict to the court."

Richter shook his head. "I am not at liberty to hear any statement until the verdict has been received and read."

Silence pervaded as the bailiff carried the jury's vote on a small white piece of paper, to the judge. Even the thunder overhead paused. Judge Richter read it aloud: "We find the defendant guilty of arson."

It took Ray Lamphere a moment to realize that his life had been spared, thanks to Worden. Of arson. Of arson. The words resounded in his head over and over. They meant prison, but not the rope. The collar of his shirt seemed looser now.

The jury's foreman now communicated the reasons for their decision. "We hearby state that it was our judgment in the consideration of this case that the adult body found in the ruins of the fire was that of Belle Gunness, and that the case was decided by us on an entirely different proposition."

Worden and Smith, both disappointed that they had not won their stand, were nevertheless professional men who knew that sometimes the best values come in compromise. However, Smith would never stop believing that Lamphere had killed Belle Gunness. And Worden would always believe that Belle Gunness lived on.

Worden was, in essence, the more correct. Ray Lamphere was given "two to twenty years" in the state penitentiary. But, La Porte, which never quite believed that Belle was gone, was sentenced, too — to years of looking over its shoulder every time a cricket stopped chirping behind them in the dark.

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