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Chalfant: Trial begins for pair suspected in homicide

February 15, 2011

The April 1928 session of Circuit Court continued, with most of the accused being convicted and receiving the maximum sentences allowed under the law. In one case, that of Harvey Goodpasture, who was charged with stealing seven sacks of seed clover from Ed C. Perkins’ farm, Judge Dimmit Hoffman went beyond the jury’s recommendation. The jury recommended a sentence of two years in the penitentiary with the possibility of parole; Hoffman refused to recommend parole because “of the crime conditions.”



On April 13, Ellis Collins and Lawrence Mabry appeared in court to request a change of venue. The two were accused of the shooting death of William Busch during an attempted robbery on Feb. 4. Both young men presented affidavits signed by county residents and thus potential jurors who believed that local folks were prejudiced against the men by the publicity surrounding the case.



Their concerns were certainly warranted. Newspaper coverage of the case had been extensive; The Sedalia Democrat had printed numerous articles outlining the shooting, Busch’s death, the promised reward for the arrest of the perpetrators, the mistaken arrest of Walter and Lewis Garrett, the arrest of Collins and Mabry on a charge of auto theft, Dr. Cannady’s premonition about their guilt, and the questioning that led to a confession. Each article recounted the facts contained in the previous article.



Pettis County Prosecuting Attorney E.W. Couey wanted the men to be tried separately so that each man’s testimony might implicate the other. On Saturday, April 14, the court granted the men a change of venue. Ellis would be tried in Marshall in Saline County beginning May 22, and Mabry would be tried in Boonville in Cooper County in late June.



On the morning of May 22, many Sedalians appeared at the courthouse in Marshall. Some were family members of the victim and the accused, others had been subpoenaed as witnesses, and still others were curiosity seekers. Naturally, the Democrat reporters were there. Witnesses from Warrensburg and Independence also gathered. They waited until afternoon for the case currently being tried to be completed, then the trial process began. Witnesses were excused until the next morning while the jury was chosen.



The jury members included Ben Odell, Robert Stafford, John Heckman, C.T. Castle, Oliver Duncan, Henry Jacoby, Walter Scott, Charles Olinger, Robert Bryan, Charles Fulton, John Steinmartz and James Martin. Judge R.M. Reynolds of Saline County presided. Pettis County Prosecutor Couey, assisted by Roy Rucker, and Johnson County Prosecutor Nick Bradley represented the state. C.I. Bennington and H.L. Bente represented Collins.



At the beginning of the trial, Busch’s brother-in-law, Elmer Fingland, testified about the shooting and Busch’s death. Busch had run to the home of Albert Lamm after the shooting. Fingland did not witness the attempted robbery and shooting, but had come to the Lamm home afterward and accompanied Busch to the hospital. He had also been present when Busch died.



Lane told that Collins and Mabry had been arrested in Independence and charged with stealing a car. He testified that he was unaware of the charges of murder brought in Pettis County until after the young men were already in jail.



After this testimony, the jury was excused while attorneys argued about whether Collins’ confession would be presented in the trial. Bente argued that the confession had been coerced. More specifically, he alleged that Johnson County Sheriff Mason Lane had threatened Collins and that Pettis County Sheriff George Rector had made promises contingent upon Collins’ confession. He further noted that Collins had “been grilled” by Dr. J.E. Cannady, who had “dreamed that Collins had committed the offense.”



He also noted that Collins did not have an attorney during the questioning, and was not told that the confession could be used against him at trial.



Lane denied that “any abusive methods” were used to encourage Collins to confess. He also said that he had told Collins he could have an attorney, but did not remember if he told Collins that his confession might be used at trial. However, Will Sudduth, the notary who transcribed the confession, testified that he warned Collins that the confession might be used against him.



Sheriff Rector denied having told Collins anything more than that “he would do what he could for him.” Rector did acknowledge that, although Lane had not made threats, “he did not talk in the best of humor.”



Collins presented a different view of the questioning. He testified that Lane had badgered him, saying, “It’s got to be told and you might just as well come across.” He indicated that Rector and Lane had “practically promised him that ‘he would be placed out on the sidewalk a free man’ if he made the confession.”



The court ruled the confession could be used as evidence, since Sudduth had warned Collins that it might be used against him. The trial continued. Whether the trial was fair and just remains questionable.