Roland Molineux Trials: 1899

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Roland Molineux Trials: 1899

Defendant: Roland Burnham Molineux
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: George Gordon Battle and Bartow Weeks; Second trial: Frank C. Black Chief Prosecutor: James W. Osborne, both trials
Judge: First trial: John Goff; Second trial: John Lambert
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trials: First trial: November 14, 1899-February 11, 1900; Second trial: October 1902
Verdicts: First trial: Guilty, overturned on appeal; Second trial: Not guilty
Sentence: First trial: Death by electrocution, overturned on appeal

SIGNIFICANCE: Roland Molineux's acquittal was the result of the New York courts enforcing more stringent limitations on the admissibility of evidence in criminal cases, which provided increased protection for the rights of defendants.

Roland Molineux was born into a distinguished family which had become rich in the chemical dye business. Molineux's father had been a Union general in the Civil War, and Molineux was raised in the upper crust of New York society. Molineux was a handsome, muscular man who had developed a reputation as a playboy and as a snob by the time he was 30.

Molineux was extremely vain about his athletic prowess, and he belonged to the Knickerbocker Athletic Club, whose membership came exclusively from wealthy and old-line New York families. He was such a snob that he repeatedly went to the club's management to demand that people he considered socially inferior be expelled. In 1898 he also began to compete with one Henry Barnet for the affections of a young and beautiful woman named Blanche Cheeseborough.

In November, Barnet received a package in the mail containing some over-the-counter stomach medicine produced by a well-known drug company. He assumed that it was a free sample, but when he took some, he became violently sick and later died. Less than two weeks after Barner's death, Molineux married Blanche Cheeseborough. Despite the suspicious circumstances, there were no charges against Molineux. Then, in December 1898, Molineux had a confrontation with Harry Cornish, the Knickerbocker Athletic Club's athletic director. Cornish beat Molineux in a weight-lifting competition, and in a fit of pique, Molineux demanded that the club expel Cornish. The management refused.

In late December, Cornish received a bottle containing a popular liquid headache medicine. He gave it to his aunt, Katharine Adams, who took some on December 28 and died after a bout of violent convulsions. This time, the authorities and the club performed a thorough investigation and discovered that the bottle contained cyanide, which had killed Adams. The police uncovered some letters to various drug companies, written by the murderer to obtain medicines and poisons, which bore Barnet's and Cornish's forged signatures. The handwriting was very similar to Molineux's, and so the police charged Molineux with murder.

Molineux is Tried for Adams' Murder

The state accused Molineux of murdering Katharine Adams but was silent with respect to Henry Barnet. The trial began November 14, 1899, with Judge John Goff presiding. The prosecutor was James W. Osborne and Molineux's lawyers were George Gordon Battle and Bartow Weeks. Osborne brought in more than a dozen expert witnesses to prove that the handwriting on the letters was Molineux's. Judge Goff repeatedly denied the defense's objections concerning the credibility of the prosecution's experts and throughout the trial clearly demonstrated his bias against Molineux. Therefore, Battle and Weeks had to restrain themselves in the hope that Osborne and Goff would commit legal blunders that could be used to overturn the verdict on appeal. After Osborne finished presenting the prosecution's case, Battle and Weeks told Judge Goff that the defense would rest without presenting its side of the case or any witnesses, stating simply that:

We believe that the prosecution has failed to establish its charge and we rest the defense upon the People's case.

The trial then proceeded directly to the attorneys' closing arguments to the jury. Osborne's statements contained the mistake that the defense had hoped for, namely improper references to evidence concerning Barnet's death:

You must remember that this defendant was married on November 29, 1898. You must remember that Barnet died on November 10, 1898. You must remember that the defendant testified at the inquest that he had been trying to marry this woman from a time running back to January 1898. The plain, cold facts are that this defendant had been trying to marry this woman and that this woman had refused him until Barnet was cold in his grave.

Osborne blatantly implored the jury to draw a connection between the deaths of Barnet and Adams:

There have been times in this case when I began to think of poor old Mrs. Adams, stricken down, stricken down without an opportunity to make her peace with her God, stricken down while she was in the performance of her family duty, leaving alone and unprotected her daughter and her son; stricken down in the most cruel and the most brutal manner. Sometimes it seems to me in the nighttime that I can almost hear the voice of Mrs. Adams, calling to me. And then Barnet, Barnet, in the vigor of his youth and manhood, stricken down in that same manner. And will a jury of my countrymen quail before the honest and just verdict? I think not.

On February 11, 1900, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Judge Goff sentenced Molineux to die in the electric chair. Battle and Weeks, however, appealed to the New York Court of Appeals in Buffalo. Although it took the Court of Appeals over a year and a half, during which time Molineux stayed in Sing Sing Prison, the court finally heard Molineux's case in June 1901. Molineux's lawyers argued that Osborne's reference to Barnet's death was improper, since Molineux had only been charged with Adams' death. On October 15, 1901, the court's seven judges unanimously ruled that Molineux's conviction had to be reversed and a new trial held.

Because the Court of Appeals had also criticized Judge Goff for being biased during the trial, Judge John Lambert presided over Molineux's second trial. It was a speedy retrial, and took only a couple of days during October of 1902. James Osborne was once again the prosecutor, but this time former Governor Frank Black led the defense team.

Lambert was more sympathetic than Goff to the defense's criticism of Osborne's handwriting experts. Further, many of the prosecution's experts, witnesses and other evidence were no longer available because nearly three years had elapsed since Adams' death. The jury this time returned a verdict of not guilty.

Roland Molineux had written a book while in Sing Sing, called The Room With the Little Door, which enjoyed some success. After his acquittal, Molineux lived off his income as a writer and what remained of his family fortune once the lawyers' fees were paid. Molineux did some writing for a couple of newspapers and even worked with a popular play-wright. He and Blanche Cheeseborough got a divorce, and although he married again, Molineux's life never returned to normal. In 1913, Molineux suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an insane asylum, where he died in 1917.

Molineux owed his freedom to the New York Court of Appeals' having enforced more stringent limitations on the admissibility of evidence in criminal cases. These limitations, which provided increased protection for the rights of defendants, were part of a trend among state courts at the turn of the century. This increased concern for the rights of the accused would eventually come to fruition in Supreme Court decisions of the 1950s and 1960s that expanded the scope of Constitutional protections in criminal trials.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Crouse, Russel. hiurder Won't Out. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1932.

LeBrun, George Petit. It's Time to Tell. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1962.

Pearson, Edmund Lester. Instigation of the Devil. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930.

Pejsa, Jane. The Molineux Affair. Minneapolis: Kenwood, 1986.

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