Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Assassination of President William McKinley

The Trial

The murder trial of Leon Czolgosz began on September 23, 1901 in the Supreme Court building in downtown Buffalo in front of Justice Truman C. White. The District Attorney who handled the case was Thomas Penney. Generally, there was little doubt of the outcome of the trial although nearly everyone respected his right to have one. "There can be no defense for his crime, and no question of his conviction, and nothing will be permitted to stop a speedy judgment," reported the N.Y. Times on September 15. The nation's press descended upon the Buffalo jail and "hammered away at him, trying to get him to admit that he had been inspired by reading Hearst papers," according to Tebbel and Watts. But the trial went according to schedule. In the early 20th century, court proceedings were handled at a much quicker pace than today. Justice, it was thought, must move fast, especially in cases where the guilt was obvious. A trial was thought of as just a formality and any delays whatsoever by the defense were frequently treated with contempt.

Former Judge Loran L. Lewis was head of the defense team and even he had reservations about his job. As part of his opening statement, he apologized for defending Czolgosz. "When the circumstances of my selection were told to me, I was extremely reluctant to accept," he told the court. After Justice White thanked him for his remarks, jury selection began. By early afternoon, a complete jury with alternates was chosen and sworn in. At 2:30 p.m., testimony began and by the end of the day, the jury heard testimony from Expo employees, three physicians who attended McKinley, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy and several witnesses. The small courtroom was packed with spectators and police who followed every word. There was also concern for the safety of Czolgosz who could be shot at any moment. Every spectator was carefully scrutinized by police, as were newspaper reporters and anyone else who entered the court.

The next morning, the trial opened promptly at 10 a.m. Witness James Quackenbush, a member of the reception committee at the Temple of Music was called to the stand.

"Tell us what you know," asked D.A. Penney.

"Immediately there were two shots. The prisoner was borne to the floor. Secret Servicemen, Officers Ireland and Foster were also in the group scrambling on the floor about the defendant," Quackenbush replied. The .32 caliber Iver-Johnson revolver was introduced into evidence and held up as proof of Czolgosz's guilt (This weapon still exists today and is on display at the Nottingham Court Museum in Buffalo, New York.)

Each witness who was at the Temple of Music identified Czolgosz, who sat at the defense table with a blank stare. Czolgosz also made a complete and detailed confession to police after his capture, which was introduced in court and accepted as evidence. Czolgosz said that he had been watching McKinley for 3 or 4 days waiting for a good time to shoot the President. He also signed a lengthy written statement in which he explained why he committed the murder. "I killed President McKinley because I done my duty. I don't believe one man should have so much service and another should have none," he wrote.

At 3:10 p.m. District Attorney Penney summed up the case for the prosecution. He spoke in grand terms of President McKinley. "A man so great that he could raise his hand and save his own assassin, a man who could shake the hand of even the very worst man you could imagine," he said. At 3:20 p.m., Judge White gave his charge to the jury. "You must consider all this evidence that the people have submitted to you. You must consider it fairly and without prejudice," he told the court. At precisely 3:51 p.m., the jury left the courtroom to deliberate the verdict.

About a half hour later, at 4:26 p.m. the jury announced that it were ready.

"And what is your verdict?" asked the judge.

"That the defendant is guilty of murder in the first degree!" the jury foreman replied. Czolgosz sat in his chair unmoved. He displayed no emotion and seemed bored with the proceedings. The entire trial, from jury selection to verdict, had taken 8 hours and 26 minutes.

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