Closing Statements

Typically, the closing statement is a lawyer’s moment to shine. Though they must stick to how the evidence supports their side in the case, they have a lot of room to shape the narrative. The closing is the last thing the jury will hear before they leave to deliberate. A powerful story will make an impact on any juror who has not yet already made up their minds. During the closing, no one may interrupt or object. Typically, in a criminal trial, the state makes the first closing statement, followed by the defense attorney, and in some cases today the state is permitted to make a rebuttal to the statement of the defense.  Much modern legal advice, however, suggests that a brief and clear closing has more impact than hours of speech-making. Unfortunately for jurors in the 1920s, it was common to allow each member of both legal teams to make a statement. Closing statements in TN v. Will D. Sheffey took the entire day on Friday, August 28, 1925. Recorded weather puts the temperature at a record high of 100° F that day.

Clipart from

Attorney General Peace was the first to make remarks to the jury.

“Men of the jury, there is in the confines of this town a beast, a fiend in human form, who answers that description, who in the small hours of the night has gone from home to home shooting men and women—nobody could find him, he was too smart for them; they watched for him night after night, and their reward was a call to ‘come,’ a home has been invaded, a husband shot or a woman ravished.”

Peace stressed the importance of the Emery letter and insisted it had been convincingly identified as having been written by Sheffey’s hand. He called out Sheffey’s “solitary habits” as being those that characterized someone who might be guilty of criminal acts. A killer does not want companions to inhibit his behavior. Peace challenged the alibi for the night of the attack on the Wells. With two women ready to declare Sheffey was the man who entered their homes, all we have against that is the word of the man’s own sister and her husband. “Why shouldn’t she swear that? She’s trying to save her brother.”

Peace simply ridiculed the testimony of Professor Barnes. He went so far as to say, “he would rather his children would be taught this new-fangled evolution stuff than such a contemptable theory of psychology as offered by Professor Barnes.” Peace stated he did not doubt for one moment that Mrs. Wells was able to recall the attacker’s appearance after she had recovered from her shock. He pointed out all the law enforcement officers and community members who saw, chased, even shot at the marauder agreed that Sheffey fit the description of the person they had encountered.  He urged the jury to find Sheffey guilty and not to let qualms about the death penalty prevent them from achieving justice.

T. C. Drinnen opened remarks for the defense. His aim was first to undermine former Sheriff John McCampbell’s testimony about Sheffey’s alleged hostile behavior towards him. Drinnen also criticized what he saw as shady decisions McCampbell had made. Why did the out-of-town investigator, “Ed Jones” work exclusively with the former Sheriff and not the present officer, Sheriff Pate? They had not even informed Pate they were working on the case. Why else but so that the investigator could pin it all on Sheffey and make a name for himself in the business?

Drinnen really tore into Mrs. Wells’ identification of Sheffey. She thought she saw Sheffey. “But she was dreaming. Are we going back to such things as witchcraft? Are we going to rely on such things as mere dreams to convict a man?” He said he did not doubt her honesty, but she had framed her identification while recovering from trauma, surgery, and anesthesia. Drinnen urged the jurors to think of Sheffey’s pain as a father, his elderly mother, and the family’s fine reputation.

Judge Sam Johnson replied to Drinnen for the state. He challenged the jury to recognize that Drinnen was asking them all to free a man because of his family’s reputation and the threat to society if we begin to accept evidence such as Mrs. Wells’ identification. Johnson reminded the jury they are not to think of all society in the future, but to decide the fate of one man accused of a crime based on evidence given by the state. He distinguished between a man’s reputation and a man’s character—Sheffey may have come from a fine family but his unscrupulous behavior with women was proof enough of his character. “He is a man of one type by day and of another by night.”

Johnson scoffed at Professor Barnes’ statement that there was no such thing as the subconscious. Johnson slowly and dramatically read Webster’s definition of the term from the dictionary. He reminded the jury that “the soul of Luther Wells cried out for justice under the trees of Magnolia cemetery.”

Russell R. Kramer replied for the defense, immediately making reference to the fact that only one of the twelve apostles failed Jesus Christ. “Jesus was the only perfect man of all times,” Kramer said, “sent to die for flimsy, unfounded circumstances. Much like this trial, in which the state wants to send a man to the electric chair for flimsy, unfounded circumstances.” Kramer utterly dismissed the Emery letter as a joke and the testimony of George Clark, the handwriting expert. The man was a paid witness, and a poor witness at that. Kramer then went on to call D. W. Poague as “the one disciple who forsook Christ.” Sheffey’s former friend had become a stooge of Sheriff McCampbell.

Kramer took a moment’s pause to then talk about the pity he feels for the widow Wells. He believed her to be an honest woman who had suffered terribly and then was swayed in her vulnerable state “by stronger minds.” Kramer challenged the method by which “Ed Jones” gave Mrs. Wells the photos of Sheffey and the sloppy manner in which he had Sheffey and other prisoners paraded before her in the Loudon hospital. Sheffey’s name, place of residence, and occupation were all in the paper before Mrs. Wells was taken to Loudon to finalize the identification. That same, week-old paper, featuring a photo of Will Sheffey, sat openly on the desk in the room where Mrs. Wells waited to see the suspects. “Why didn’t you play fair at the Loudon hospital?” Kramer asked the state.

Kramer then asked the jury for some sympathy for Sheffey. The man had bared his whole life before them, even though the law did not require him to. Kramer chided the state for bringing up some of the most painful and emotional moments of Sheffey’s life. He asked the how they would feel to have their grief thrown in their faces, for a young husband to be summoned from work to meet his baby son and say goodbye to his wife all in the same moment. Kramer said it was Divine Providence that Sheffey went to his sister’s home that night to talk about the missing Reverend Jones—“just one instance of God’s plan to take care of us”, allowing the family to recall with certainty where they were on that terrible day. Reporters described Kramer as having become a bit overcome with emotion at this moment, moving many spectators to tear up a little themselves. He reminded them that there was a little, motherless boy, counting on them to send his daddy home.

He finished with a quick reference to the case of Maurice Mays. Kramer said that he, himself, had often said that Mays was probably innocent. He imagined the state prosecutor had done the same, as many in the legal profession felt that way. And yet, having expressed that sentiment was now somehow evidence of Sheffey’s own guilt.

Once Kramer concluded his statement, the judge ordered the trial to recess for lunch.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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