The Second Trial

After the mistrial was announced in August, both sides regrouped for to prepare for the second trial. It was decided that Sheffey would be tried again in the very next session of court, in December 1925. On November 28, the Knoxville Journal reported that that Sheffey was still being held in Loudon County for his own safety and that he “spends most of his time reading.” “His approaching trial does not seem to give up much worry. He makes no reference to his case but is willing to talk on other topics with visitors.”

Several news outlets speculated that perhaps the state would mix things up a bit and switch to the supposedly stronger case against Sheffey in the attack on the Poes. However, the prosecution announced that they planned to revisit the Wells case and then immediately proceed to try Sheffey for the attack on Mr. and Mrs. Poe. By December 19th, it was clear that two more charges were being added to the indictment—the breaking and entering of the homes of Miss Reba Jones [later Mrs. Reba Littlefield] on Tuckaleechee Pike on October 17, 1924, and the assault of Mrs. James Allison on Lincoln Rd. in Alcoa on March 23, 1923. The Knoxville Journal reported that Sheffey was “disconcerted” when he heard of the additional charges in the courtroom, but that he quickly regained his composure.

Everyone expected to hear new evidence, especially since now the defense team were well informed of what the state had in its arsenal. However, they would be disappointed. So much of what the first trial covered was going to be simply repeated, even read to the jury if the witnesses could not return to attend a second trial. The fact that so much of the first trial would be repeated, added to the approaching Christmas holiday, meant that far fewer people were interested. “Little Interest in Sheffey Trial” was the page two headline in the Maryville Times on December 24, 1925. Where there had been standing room only during the August trial, there were plenty of available seats this time around. The Maryville paper made special note that very few women were in attendance.

It took four days just find enough men to serve on the jury. Over those four days, over 650 men were summoned as veniremen to be screened for jury duty. Judge Blair dismissed quite a few, usually for family illness. Attorneys for the defense and the prosecution dismissed a few on other grounds. Anyone who did not responds to the summons was issued a fine. At one point, it looked like they would have to proceed with only eleven men, most of them farmers: Frank Dunlap; William L. Millsaps; Jesse Lawson, a carpenter; John Hembree; J. A. Thompson, a member of the county court; Roy Boring; John Lequire; C. W. Best; Steve Keeble; Ellis Gibson/Green; and C. B. Osborne, a mechanic; Just before arguments commenced, O. W. Downing took the 12th chair.

Having been through the evidence before seemed to introduce new frustrations for the defense team. When D. W. Poague and Mayford Cusick testified that they had seen the Emery letter and thought the handwriting looked like Sheffey’s, Kramer challenged them because there were discrepancies from their testimony in the first trial. Both witnesses stood by their statements, and the Judge told everyone to move on. This time around, Elizabeth and Martha Reagan said it was not just reflected flashlight illuminating the face of the intruder into their home; this time they said there had also been bright lightening that night. They said they had gotten a very good look at the man’s face. On cross-examination, the Reagans admitted they had originally said they did not get a good look at his face. Kramer further rattled the witnesses when he challenged Mr. Reagan about an encounter with “Daddy Croft”. The state objected and the jury was escorted out of the room. Mr. Reagan admitted that the day after the break-in, Daddy Croft told him his boys had broken into the house as a prank. At the time, he had accepted this and decided not to pursue any charges.

The most exciting thing about the second trial was that Judge Blair decided to allow the jury to hear evidence about the other break-ins and assaults, before and after the attack on the Wells. He said he would let that evidence be heard if it could be tied directly to Sheffey. The defense tried to object to every single witness, but the state was able to make its case. They even introduced the charges against Sheffey for the murder of Dora Davis because she was named in the anonymous letter sent to Sheriff McCampbell. Regardless, the most any of the new witnesses could say was that the intruder they saw, chased, or shot at was the same build as Will Sheffey and not much more.

Ada Wells was put through the same grueling testimony as in the first trial. This time, as before, she did not waver from her identification of Sheffey as the man who attacked her and her husband.

Will Sheffey took the stand in his own defense on December 25, Christmas Day. This time, he opened with a description of his life at the age of 6, when he lost his father. He talked about his education at Carson Newman College and the ten years he spent working at the Aluminum Co. before his arrest. He made a point of saying he never read lascivious books, but only great literature, and did not look at lewd pictures. He repeated his alibi for the attack on the Wells—he had gone to tell his sister that her friend, Reverend Jones, had not been found. She was at church when he went into her house, and he awaited her return. Afterwards, he spent the night.  On the night several homes were broken into, in July 1923, he had taken a room at the Atkin Hotel in Knoxville. He did not have any luggage at that time, but he checked out the next day. His sister corroborated his alibi for the night the Wells were attacked. The Atkin Hotel clerk produced the register with Sheffey’s signature.

An image of the Atkin Hotel at the corner of Gay and Depot St. from Knoxville Lost and Found

Since evidence of the other Night Marauder attacks were now put before the jury, the defense also had to produce as many counterpoints as possible. Most of their new witnesses addressed how many of the victims of home invasion had said they couldn’t even remember if the intruder they encountered was white or black. At least a dozen different people testified that Ada Wells, in particular, said she would not be able to identify her attacker. The defense even produced a few new witnesses who said Ada had said the opposite. Presumably, the confusion surrounding Ada’s state of mind in the days after the attack helped undermine the certainty of her identification.

Closing statements began on December 29 and followed the same script as in the first trial. To the state, Sheffey was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, laying aside his respectable life when the sun went down. To the defense, Sheffey was a long-suffering and hardworking family man.

The second trial of William D. Sheffey on one count of murder and one attempted assault ended in another mistrial. Nine of the jurors voted to convict and three (Boring LeQuire, and Downey) voted to acquit. None would budge in their decision. Judge Blair agreed to set a bail hearing for January 8, 1926 and postpone another trial until the April 1926 session. Sheffey was returned once more to Loudon County jail.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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