The State of TN vs. William D. Sheffey, opening day

As the August 1925, session of the Circuit Court in Blount County, TN, approached, the town was abuzz. The earliest reports were that the Sheffey defense team was hard put to get the state to reveal their evidence prior to its presentation at trial. There was no preliminary hearing. By August 11, it had been announced that the charge of the murder of Luther Wells would be the first tested in open court. It is not clear why the prosecution chose to open with the Wells case when most had speculated that the case against Sheffey was stronger in the Poe case. During the investigation, Lora Poe was prepared to describe the assault she had survived, and it is possible the state hoped to spare her that in open court. However, her baby, Clyde Pe Jr., had died of rickets and colitis just a month after Sheffey’s arrest. In spite of public efforts to raise money for the Poes, Lora must have struggled to make ends meet after Clyde died and their child suffered from malnutrition as a result. The death certificate for the poor child notes “dietary idiosyncrasies.” After tragedy upon tragedy, Lora might not have been up to the challenge of a drawn-out trial. Whatever the reason, the state pursued the Wells case first. Four of the five charges against Sheffey were capital offenses and the plan was to try each separately.

Maryville, TN, circa 1920 photographed from Maryville College hill. Photo on display at Blount County History Museum. The courthouse was built in 1908

The Knoxville Journal on the morning of August 18 lost no time in stirring up passions. Their coverage of the trial’s opening referred foremost to the expected testimony of the youthful Ada Wells.

Her story of that epochal, blood-soaked night when tragedy stalked through the humble little home which she shared with her husband and its fatal termination for him, will be told to a jury in the Blount County criminal court engaged in the trial of William D. Sheffey, accused and indicted for the murder of Wells. And it is upon that which Ada Wells will swear, in the presence of her God, the outcome of the notable criminal proceeding rests.

The paper went on to describe Sheffey as “clean-shaven, well-dressed, and educated for the business of life.” They also noted he seemed “cooly calculating” and “one of the keenest of minds.”

The courtroom was jammed to capacity. Seating an impartial jury had been difficult because of the deep divisions in town, but eventually both sides were content with the jurors. Russell R. Kramer headed up Sheffey’s defense team. Kramer’s opening gambit was to challenge the order of the charges, claiming the Poe case was the most critical and should have been tried first. Judge Blair stood firm and said they had already adapted the docket and had mutually agreed to hear the Wells case first.

The first witnesses were Dr. McMahon, who had tended the Wells the night they were attacked, and J. O. Law, who was a neighbor of Sheffey’s sister, Josephine Irwin. Sheffey’s alibi for the night in question was that he was staying at his sister’s house. Mr. Law testified that he saw Sheffey’s care back out of the driveway at about 11 p.m. on the night in question. He was up with a sick child and saw the reflection of the headlights on the wall of the room he was in. On cross-examination, Kramer was able to get Law to admit that it could have been someone else driving by.

Ada Wells was called to the stand as the third witness, but she was the one everyone had come to hear. The crowd surged to see her approach the stand. Widowed at just twenty years old and described as a “slight figure”, she made her way forward and spoke as clearly as she could. It was the biggest court day in the history of the County up to that time, and the corridors of the courthouse and the streets of the city were filled with people who had not been able to gain admittance into the trial.

As the state’s attorney asked her to spell out everything she could remember about the night of the attack, she mentioned a detail that Lora Poe had also described: the intruder carried his pistol and flashlight with his hands somewhat crossed, so that the flashlight both blinded her and illuminated the gun. The attacker would have had to switch his hands at some point since his signature move was running one hand up the leg of the sleeping woman. It was only after she had awoken her husband beside her that the flashlight was brought forth.

She stated that when the intruder told Luther to step aside so he could go to his wife, Luther refused. She also said that she told the intruder clearly that she would rather die than let him harm her. Luther stood firm, refusing to give way to their attacker. That is when the Marauder said to Luther, “I’m going to shoot you anyhow, just for the look in your eye.” At that point, the man shot Luther in the head. In telling this part of the incident, Ada broke into soft sobs for just a moment and then collected herself. She went on to relate how she had screamed and been shot, then followed the intruder to the front porch as he ran away.

The attorney general asked if she would be able to identify her attacker and she said she could. Kramer objected immediately. The defense team would need to brutally dismantle this woman’s confident identification and their best strategy would be to prevent the jury from hearing an “incompetent identification.” Kramer asked that the jury be removed while they cross-examined the witness and the judge complied. Without the jury present, the attorney asked Ada to identify her attacker. She looked directly at Will Sheffey in the courtroom and said, “That’s the man. He did it.” The Knoxville paper reported that Sheffey’s only reaction was to wipe his brow, but the courtroom was sweltering and “jammed to suffocation,” with people straining to hear every word. Upon her statement, the audience seemed to relax and settle in for the spectacle.

The defense team asked to be allowed to cross-examine Mrs. Wells without the jury present and this motion was declined. However, Kramer and Gamble were permitted to outline the reasons for their objection. They began with the manner in which she had first “seen” the man: hours after saying she could not describe the attacker, she dreamed or hallucinated a man at the foot of her hospital bed. After that hallucination, the investigator offered Mrs. Wells a few photos of groups of men. Will Sheffey was in all of the photos and she picked him out after several minutes of staring at them. And finally, without the suspect’s knowledge, the witness was secretly allowed to listen to a medical vocal examination from outside the room. The defense team argued that the irregularities in this “line up” should undermine the witnesses identification of the accused. Attorney General Peace assured the judge that due proof would be presented in support of the identification.

The jury reentered the courtroom and were allowed to hear Ada Wells identify Sheffey and explain how she had come to be sure it was him, with the defense team objecting at every possible moment. Judge Blair explained that he was confident that the testimony as presented was competent and that the defense would get their chance to challenge it in due time.

Much of the case would depend on how much the jury was willing to trust Ada’s identification of Sheffey. Once she had made the claim in court, she would never waver from it. The state would bring in an expert to explain how memory could be blurred immediately after a trauma but came back later. The defense would call on an expert witness to claim the opposite. The testimony of both experts reflected the state of the field of psychology in 1925 and will be the topic of the next post.

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

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