Friday, May 17, 2013

Prosecutorial misconduct, or a personal grudge?

On the afternoon of Election Day 1897, John Dreifort rode his mule from the southern part of Red River County to the sheriff’s office in Clarksville to report a crime.

Dreifort told Sheriff Daniel West and Chief Deputy J.D. Wilson he had witnessed a man and a young woman engaged in a carnal act just south of Cuthand Creek. He said he saw the pair in a buggy that crossed the creek on the new bridge. The man turned left on a connecting dirt road and then stopped when not far along the road. The man and the woman left the buggy and walked through a small clearing, Dreifort said. The woman leaned against a tree and the man stood against her and the two began fornicating, Dreifort said. He saw all that from 30 yards away, through the limbs and branches of a large oak tree that had fallen the night before during a long rain.

At some point, the woman saw Dreifort. She spoke to her companion. She rearranged her dress, Dreifort said, and she and the man returned to the buggy and drove away. The man, Dreifort said, was G.W. Stewart; the young woman was Ophelia Gray, Stewart’s step-daughter.

Next day, West and Wilson rode to Stewart’s farm and arrested him on a charge of incest. Stewart was arraigned in Clarksville. Within two days, prosecutor Thomas Stout convinced a grand jury to indict Stewart for incestual relations with his step-daughter. At Stout’s behest, the grand jury also indicted Ophelia Gray.

Records do not say, but you have to wonder: Upon what system of law did prosecutor Stout attain indictment against the young woman? If Ophelia was a minor (court records do not list her age), then she could not have committed incest. Stewart, not Ophelia, would have made that decision. And if Ophelia had attained majority, incest would not be the crime allegedly committed. The crimes would have been adultery, on Stewart’s part, and fornication for him and Ophelia.

Law does not always follow logic, though, especially law rendered by local authorities, so Stewart and Gray both found themselves in Sixth District Court within two weeks of their escapade near Cuthand Creek.

Then, prosecutor Stout sprang a surprise: He was dropping charges against Gray, if she would agree not to testify for the defense. She agreed, presumably at the suggestion of Stewart.

The trial took two days, from opening arguments to verdict. The prosecution produced witnesses who identified Stewart as owner of a farm in southeast Red River County, as arriving in Texas from North Carolina two years before, as married to Miriam Gray Stewart, and as step-father to Ophelia Gray. Other witnesses said they saw Stewart in Clarksville on Election Day, and that he and Ophelia arrived together in a buggy and left together in the same transport.

Dreifort testified in the same manner with which he gave his initial statement to Sheriff West and Deputy Wilson. He had witnessed the crime, he said, and Stewart had committed the crime.

Defense attorney A.J. Dumont challenged just about every witness, questioning especially if any had knowledge of a wedding between Stewart and Miriam Gray. None had, since the marriage presumably occurred in North Carolina. Witnesses also said Ophelia’s father was said to have gone to California several years before, leaving Miriam in North Carolina to raise their daughter.

Dumont’s arguments took this tenor: “All you people say my client is married to the young woman’s mother. … Prove it. Show me a marriage license. Somebody bring to this courtroom a legal document proving the marriage of G.W. Stewart to Miriam Gray. Prove such a marriage exists. Prove it!”

Dumont’s arguments failed to convince members of the jury. After only a short deliberation, the jury found G.W. Stewart guilty of the crime of incest.

Dumont appealed, of course, and in 1902, five years later, the state appeals court in Tyler said in effect to the county prosecutor: “You better try this case again.”

Stout declined. Instead, he recommended the state drop charges against Stewart.

You have to wonder, why did the prosecutor take the case to trial? Did he have a personal grudge against Stewart? Court records do not reveal an answer.

(This was an actual case tried in Sixth District Court in 1897. Names have been changed.)

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