Closing Statements, Part II

After lunch, the trial resumed. General L. D. Smith of Knoxville spoke for the state.  He started by praising the defense team. “No man under our form of government should be deprived of the right to present his side of a lawsuit to a fair and impartial jury.” But he warned them, sympathy for the defendant and the words of his able attorneys should not steer them away from seeking justice. Smith said he had almost declined the opportunity to work with the prosecution in this case. But he realized that a man accused of such heinous crimes had to face justice, or fear would continue to run all their lives.

Smith agreed with the defense that Sheffey had the love of his elderly mother, his siblings, and of his little boy but otherwise he had no friends. Such a fine character should have had friends lining up to plead his cause but the best the defense could conjure up were some co-workers and neighbors, and a man capable of a crime like this one would never reveal his true nature to such people.  “Now, was there any reason why this little widow should pick this defendant as the would-be despoiler of her life, the slayer of her husband? I tell you the attack there made upon this couple just starting out in life was to satisfy the lustful passions of his nature, the refusal of which endangered her own life.” What motive could she have to ruin an innocent man’s life, he asked rhetorically, and what proof is there that the Sheriff had any motive to go after him? Sheffey was on trial because the evidence put him there. Smith finished by reminding the jury that Sheffey was a man who liked going out at night, a man who had guns and a flashlight, and no trustworthy friends.

Moses H. Gamble, portrait on Biographies in Blount County

Judge Moses H. Gamble closed for the defense, delivering what spectators called “one of the greatest addresses he has ever delivered in criminal practices.” Like Kramer, Gamble evoked the only “Superman” to have ever existed, the Lord Jesus, who also had been killed on an unproven suspicion. He expressed dismay that a man could be charged with murder, rape, and robbery and then challenged to prove himself innocent of any crime. That is not what the justice system is based upon, Gamble reminded the audience. He went on to accept the state’s compliments for having put up such a great defense of Sheffey. “Why have we fought,” he asked. “Why, for innocence, for truth not visions, for the life of an innocent man, and we will continue to fight as long as there is an inch of ground to stand on,” he thundered.

Gamble asked where the earliest descriptions of the marauder were—why were they not shared with the jury for comparison to Sheffey? Why was Mrs. Law not called to corroborate her husband’s observations of the Irwin home on Washington Ave? He challenged the state to justify the way in which the suspect was presented to Ada Wells. Why show her a printed photo including Sheffey and lead her to believe her assailant was in it? The cards were stacked against Sheffey from the moment Sheriff McCampbell considered him a suspect. The various law enforcement officers who reported chasing someone who returned fire could offer no better proof than that the man had the same build as Sheffey. Gamble also ridiculed the handwriting expert and finished with criticism of the shameful way in which Sheffey’s past life was trotted out for the audience. He suggested anyone with similar sins be invited to cast the first and second stones.

Thomas N. Brown, a member of the state legislature, got the last word on behalf of the prosecution. He said he often quoted a text when closing a case, but he needed no text in this one. He chose instead to remind the jury of Ada Well’s words—“I’ll die first”—in refusing the indecent demands of the intruder. The other quote he used came from the Emery letter: “Tell the women to scream; I can’t shoot a woman who doesn’t scream.”

Brown reminded everyone that for 60, for 80, for 100 years the people of Blount County could go to sleep at night without a thought about locking their doors.

But in 1919 there came a young man to the county from Sevier, and he did not have such a good reputation. You’ll find at the age of 17 he violated the age of consent and was not prosecuted. He faced a charge of murdering a young woman and was acquitted. After this young man came to this county, a home was entered, then another and for the next two, three, four years, homes were being entered and the community terrorized. That’s what you, the jury, are interested in. Then what happened? A young man was arrested, and there hasn’t been a marauding case since. The ‘know-it-all’, gentlemen, is before you—there he sits, Will Sheffey.

Brown went on to ask how many times Sheffey’s good sister would be prevailed upon to defend her brother. He also explained that there had been nothing unconstitutional about the manner of Sheffey’s identification. Nothing prohibits a victim being delivered to where a suspect will be present.

The jury left to begin their deliberations at 5:30 p.m. at the end of arguments on Friday, August 28.  It had been an intense and dramatic trial. Crowds continued to jam the courtroom, the corridors, and even the sidewalks outside the courthouse. Most were able to hear the explosive statements made by each side, even if they never got to see what was happening. Those lucky enough to get seats in the courtroom had taken to bringing lunches so they would not have to give up their places. The heat was so overwhelming that the jurors were given regular breaks in order to get some fresh air, but the spectators stayed put. After the jurors were escorted out of the room to discuss the case, Judge John Blair congratulated the audience for their patience and order. This was in spite of the fact that they had reacted to every piece of testimony as if they were attending the theater—laughing, crying, and gasping at what they heard.

After fifteen hours of deliberation, the jury returned with seven voting for acquittal and five for conviction. Those voting to acquit were Sam Hatcher, J. S. Helton, Richard Hatcher, Charles Kidd, W. C. Kirkland,, A. F. Tindle and W. H. Willocks. Those for conviction were Carl McTeer, R. H. Rules, G. W. Tullochs, G. W. Spradlin, and A. P. Roberts. Twice, the judge sent them to reconsider and twice they returned with no decision. By 9:35 a.m. on August 29, the jury was dismissed, and mistrial was declared. Sheffey was observed to take the news with “stoical calm.”

The judge decided against allowing Sheffey to remain in the Blount County jail. For his own safety, he stated, the suspect would return to Loudon County. This declaration caused quite a stir among the parties, however. The defense team first pressed for release on bail, which the judge refused outright. Then they asked for Sheffey to remain in Blount County for his comfort and the ease of visitation by friends and family. A.G. Peace urged against this, as the constant stream of visitors would stress the resources of Sheriff Pate and perhaps open up opportunities for the defendant to slip away. The defense team offered to let Pate decide and he wisely demurred, saying he’d abide by whatever the judge decided. By 4:30 p.m. on the day the trial ended, Pate and a deputy delivered Sheffey to Sheriff Miller in Loudon County and returned home.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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