Theo Durrant Trial: 1895

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Theo Durrant Trial: 1895

Defendant: William Henry Theodore Durrant
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Eugene N. Deuprey and John H. Dickinson
Chief Prosecutors: W.H. Anderson, William S. Barnes, W.F. Fitzgerald, and Edgar D. Peixotto
Judge: D.J. Murphy
Place: San Francisco, California
Dates of Trial: April 15-November 1, 1895
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: "Theo" Durrant was tried, convicted, and executed for murdering two girls despite the fact that the prosecution never proved any motive for the murders.

William Henry Theodore Durrant, known as "Theo," was probably the last person the people of San Francisco, California, would have suspected as being capable of the "Crime of the Century," as San Francisco newspapers described the murders Durrant committed in the Emanuel Baptist Church in 1895.

Durrant was a 21-year-old medical student at the Cooper Medical College. He also belonged to the Emanuel Baptist Church, where he taught Sunday school, assisted with church services, and helped out with various repair jobs in his spare time. He was liked and well respected in the community. In April of 1895, however, he revealed a different side to his personality.

On the afternoon of April 3, Durrant took his fiancee, a high-school girl named Blanche Lamont, into the church. The church was empty, and Durrant grabbed Blanche and proceeded to strangle her to death. He then dragged her corpse to the church belfry where he committed necrophilia with the body. Afterwards he left the church, leaving Lamont's body in the belfry.

That evening, Lamont's parents contacted the police and reported that their daughter was missing. The police went to Durrant's house and questioned him. He feigned ignorance and suggested that Lamont had been kidnapped by one of the white slavery gangs then common in San Francisco. While the police investigated this possibility, Durrant murdered another girl.

On Good Friday, April 12, Durrant lured young Minnie Williams into the Church late at night. He raped and killed her, then dismembered her body in the church library. Durrant made no effort to clean up the bloodstained library or dispose of Williams' body, and once he was finished, he simply left. Some members of the congregation entered the church the next morning and discovered the scene of butchery. They summoned the police, who searched the Church and discovered Lamont's body in the belfry as well. The police promptly arrested Durrant and began the inquests that were the prelude to Durrant's trial on April 15.

Durrant Tried for Murder

The case attracted considerable publicity, with the San Francisco newspapers trumpeting that it was the "Crime of the Century." The prosecutors were W.H. Anderson, William S. Barnes, W.F. Fitzgerald and Edgar D. Peixotto. Durrant was represented by Eugene N. Deuprey and John H. Dickinson. Presiding was Judge D.J. Murphy.

The evidence against Durrant was overwhelming, except for the motive behind the murders. Why did Durrant kill the two girls? There was no inheritance that he stood to collect, no personal possessions worth stealing. In fact, there were no rational reasons for the murders. Durrant's lawyers relied on the lack of motive as their primary defense during the trial. In response, Peixotto stated for the prosecution that:

The brilliant counsel for the defendant in his opening statement challenged the prosecution to answer the questions where Blanche Lamont was murdered, when she was murdered, by whom she was murdered, and what the motive was. We are now ready to answer these questions. What was the motive?"; unbridled passion, that same motive that has ruled and governed the world, made nations totter and decay, brought men from the highest pinnacles in life down to brutish beasts; that same motive that has filled our histories with black pages; that gave to the Roman Empire such characters as Nero, Tiberius and Caracalla.

In other words, Durrant's only motive was an inexplicable impulse to vent his sexual urges through murder. A modern court would have little difficulty accepting this, but in a 19th-century murder prosecution, the lack of a rational motive was still something of a novelty. The defense retorted that Durrant's good character and outstanding reputation in the community made it implausible that he could have acted out of such a twisted motive. It was not a terribly strong argument, but the defense had little else to go with. There was always the hope that the prosecution could be prevented from meeting its burden of proving Durrant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Dickinson presented the defense's argument to the jury:

Now, gentlemen, in leaving this case with you, I ask you to consider carefully the good character of the defendant, which stands before you today unimpeached except by the suspicions which this testimony has thrown upon it. His character has been good these many years and there is not a particle of evidence that his character was not at all times uniformly good. His conduct has been entirely natural throughout this entire trial and since the day of his arrest. What motive could he have had for doing such an act? What motive had he for wrecking his home and his life and his future?

By the fall of 1895, the Durrant trial was the sensation of the West Coast. The courtroom was filled to capacity with spectators every day. Despite the gruesome crimes Durrant was accused of committing, many of these spectators were young women attracted by Durrant's dark good looks. When the attorneys for the prosecution and the defense had rested their cases, Judge Murphy read his instructions to the jury. In particular, he instructed them on the law concerning proof of motive for murder:

Motive for the killing is an important essential fact in the trial for murder If upon a review of the whole evidence, no motive is apparent or can be fairly imputed to the accused in the commission of the crime charged against him, then this is a circumstance in favor of innocence, and should be so considered by you. The motive may not be apparent in many cases of homicide; there may be no motive discernible, except what arises at or near the time of the commission of the act, and yet the killing is not without a motive. With regard to the grounds from which motive may be inferred, the law has never limited them; therefore it is immaterial whether the motive be hatred, wealth, or the gratification of desires or passions.

Judge Murphy offered the jury an illustration, to which they could compare the Durrant case:

To illustrate this principle: If a man, being of sane mind, and in the absence of a sudden impulse, without any quarrel or word of explanation or warning, should draw his pistol, and take aim and deliberately fire its contents into the breast of another, and death should immediately follow such shooting, and upon his arrest, and ever after, he should refuse to give any explanation or excuse for his criminal act; upon the trial of such a man under such circumstances, it is certainly clear that the prosecution would not be called upon to prove by affirmative testimony what motive, or that any motive, impelled the accused to commit homicide, for the reason that the law will presume that he acted from motive, and that his actions were prompted by reason and was the result of causes acting upon his mind, and deemed sufficient by him to inspire his action.

Therefore, in a restrained manner befitting contemporary morality, Judge Murphy had told the jury that if they believed that Durrant committed the murders to satisfy some twisted sexual urge, then that would constitute a sufficient motive. On November 1, 1895, the jury returned a verdict of guilty against Durrant. Under California law, Durrant faced the death penalty.

Durrant sat in prison for more than a year following the trial while Deuprey and Dickinson filed a series of appeals challenging the verdict. On March 3, 1897, the Supreme Court of California upheld the verdict and denied the defense's appeals. Justice Frederick William Henshaw spoke for California's highest court when he said that the trial court had acted properly:

Appellant further urges that the evidence fails to disclose any motive for the crime; that proof of motive is essential to support a conviction; and that, therefore, the judgment must be reversed. If by this is meant that proof of a particular motive must be as clear and cogent as proof of the crime, the proposition finds no support in either reason or authority. To the act of every rational human being preexists a motive. In every criminal case proof of the moving cause is permissible, and oftentimes is valuable; but it is never essential. Proof of motive is never indispensable to a conviction.

In essence, the court was telling judges and juries that they were not required to speculate as to the cause of irrational crimes such as Durrant's:

The wellsprings of human conduct are infinite, and infinitely obscure. An act may owe its performance to complex and multitudinous promptings. Who: Knows each cord its various tone, Each spring its various bias?

After some further delays, Durrant's execution was set for January 7, 1898. He asked to say some final words, but he was hung from the scaffold before he had the chance.

Durrant's execution put an end to the story of the Crime of the Century. In a sense, it also put an end to a certain amount of judicial innocence concerning proof of motive in a murder case. It was recognized that some people of apparently good character with no prior history of violence can commit bizarre, brutal crimes for no rational reason. Although motive was still a relevant issue, the prosecution's inability to explain such behavior would not stand in the way of the guilty party's punishment.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Durrant, William Henry Theodore. Report of the Trial of William Henry Theodore Durrant, Indicted for the Murder of Blanche L.amont. Detroit: The Collector Publishing Co., 1899.

Jackson, Joseph Henry. San Francisco Murders. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947.

Leach, Harold. The Ctime of a Century. San Francisco: Yosemite Publishing Co., 1895.

Scott, Harold Richard. The Concise Encyclopedia of Crime and Criminals. London: A. Deutsch, 1961.