Florida v. Thrasher, Part V: “one of the most celebrated murder cases in the history of Florida” goes to trial

After his indictment in December 1889, Barton A. Thrasher applied to the circuit court to be released on bail. Florida law in the late 19th century set a high standard for bail in murder cases: the defendant would have to show that the evidence against him was so weak that the judge would have overturned a guilty verdict. Judge J. J. Finley – one of Florida’s most respected jurists (as well as a former congressman and Confederate general) – ruled that Thrasher’s claims of self-defense, or “justification,” did not meet this standard and denied bail. Thrasher appealed to Florida’s Supreme Court which found no reason to overturn Finley’s decision. 26 FL S. C. 526 (June 1890). Helpfully, the Florida Supreme Court took the opportunity to iterate the standard necessary to win an acquittal on a justification

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defense: Thrasher had the burden of convincing the jury “by a preponderance of the evidence.” Showing reasonable doubt would not suffice. Further, the Supreme Court advised, the “party who seeks and brings on a difficulty cannot avail himself of the rights of self-defense to shield himself from the consequences of killing.” The law certainly did not look to be in Thasher’s favor. Both the circuit judge and state supreme court believed that Thrasher had shown no convincing evidence in support of his chosen defense.

The trial finally began with jury selection in February 1891 in Alachua County’s impressive new courthouse. Judge Jesse J. Finley, nearly eighty years old, presided. Thrasher was represented by a team of prominent attorneys, including this law partner J. W. Ashby,

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Robert Wyche Davis (who many years later played a role in Billy Townsend’s Age of Barbarity), Sydney L.

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Carter, J. N. Liggett and Col. Hugh

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Miller. One prescient observer remarked that Thrasher was defended by “an array of counsel sufficient to make most any man feel safe of his life.”

On Feb. 16th, before a “packed courtroom,” B. A. Thrasher waited together with his wife and his mother, whose “pale and sad face excited the sympathy of all present.” [Gainesville] Daily Sun, Feb. 15, 1891. The state’s attorney, William H. Wigg, began to build his case. Witnesses testified to seeing Witkovski alive in Gainesville on the morning of Dec. 11, 1889, later hearing gun shots and then finding Witkovski’s corpse in the law office of Ashby & Thrasher, “In an office chair, feet crossed and head thrown back on chair with two bullet holes in the head.” One witness recalled finding Thrasher on the street, within “fifty or sixty yards” of the office, heard him admit to shooting Witkovski and saying he “wanted to see Sheriff Wiengas right away.” Witnesses did not recall Thrasher claiming he shot Witkovski in self-defense. Doctors testified to examining the body and finding one gun shot wound below and to the left of the victim’s left eye, “ranging backward and upward, coming out the head at the junction of the parietal and occipital bones” and a second gun shot wound entering “the lower lip, deflected, fracturing the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae.” Daily Sun, Feb. 17, 1891.

The prosecution also introduced into evidence, over the defense’s objection, Thrasher’s statement admitting to the murder made during his preliminary examination back in Dec. 1889 (recounted in Part IV). On the morning of the second day of the trial, the state rested its case.

Thrasher’s all-star defense team then took over. Their first witness, working in an office across the street from Ashby & Thrasher, claimed to have seen through the window a stranger looking over a dead man’s body in Thrasher’s office.

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A second defense witness added nothing substantial and the defense quickly abandoned this ineffectual line of argument. At this moment, the defense finally called its star witness: Annie J. Brown.

One wants to imagine scene as hollywood film noir The courtroom is hushed as Mrs. Brown’s name is called and she glides through the swinging doors, strolls defiantly down the center aisle, the click of her heels on the floor echoing in the hushed courtroom, as the packed house stares with mouths agape. (Who plays Mrs. Brown in the movie?) We like to think that the one-time millenary department manager is fashionable dressed and carefully removes a flowered hat and dark veil as she takes the stand.

Mrs. Brown testified that she had been employed by Witkovski for four years and left his employ on June 2, 1889. When defense counsel asked the reason she left, the state objected, and Judge Finley sustained the objection. The prosecution next objected to leading questions from the defense about whether in the days before the shooting, Ms. Brown had communicated to Thrasher “any insults or indignities which had been offered” to Ms. Brown by Witkovski, and whether within a week before the shooting she had communicated to Thrasher “ any threats made against him” by Witkovski. Brown was allowed to testify that within a week prior to the killing she indeed had communicated to Thrasher certain threats made by Witkovski that he would “take Thrasher’s life or do him serious bodily harm.” At this dramatic moment, the second day of the trial came to a close.

On the morning of the trial’s third day, Brown returned to the stand. Judge Finley sustained prosecution objections to defense questions asking Brown to testify how she came to communicate Witkovski’s alleged threats. Brown then testified that Witkovski had told her that he knew that Thrasher was “her only friend to protect her.” If Thrasher interfered, Witkovski insisted, so Brown claimed, that he would kill Thrasher. Witkovski then advised Brown not to elude him again and that “he would not allow anything

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on earth to stand between them.”

As Annie Brown dismounts the witness stand, the orchestra swells, fainting women are administered smelling salts, children’s ears are released, and flush-faced men swiftly expectorate and hour’s worth of chewing into the nearest spittoon.

But the defense was not done. A surprise witness was called: F. S. Kerr, who testified to meeting Witkovski in Starke and again in New York City around Sept. 1, 1889. He also reported meeting separately with Annie Brown in New York. According to Kerr, Witkovski had threatened to harm or take Thrasher’s life if Thrasher prevented him from seeing Annie Brown. Kerr also mentioned that a detective had approached him in New York, but Kerr would not explain himself to the detective whom he considered “as one of a set of scoundrels trying to persecute this woman.”

After testimony that Thrasher had turned in two pistols, including Witkovski’s, to the sheriff, the defense rested its case and began its summation. Col. Liggett insisted on the “right of man to kill another man” when he deemed his life in danger from “overt acts or words on the part of the other in every possible phase.” But Liggett knew what this trial was really about and what the jury was waiting to hear. The attorney then “dwelt with great earnestness and wealth of illustration on the right of man to defend the honor of a woman.” The court’s day ended and, a reporter commented, it was then “universally conceded that the celebrated case” would be decided in Thrasher’s favor. Weekly Sun, Feb. 19, 1891.

On Saturday morning, the prosecution summed up its case. Gamely, the

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prosecutor attempted to counter Liggett’s dramatic appeal: the state sympathized with the family of the accused while reminding the jury of the “widow and orphans of the deceased,” but also advised the jury that “injured women, the grief of a bereaved family have no place in the jury box.” The prosecution then finally addressed the actual evidence: according to the testimony, Witkovski’s body was found in a position not consistent with drawing a pistol from a sitting position. The one-armed man pulling a pistol from his hip pocket would have moved his body forward, and if shot, should have fallen forward and not back as the witnesses described. In closing, the state instructed the jury that if it did not believe that Witkovski was drawing his pistol when shot, they must convict Thrasher of 1st degree murder. Alternatively, if the jurors believed that Witkovski was indeed drawing his gun, they must convict Thrasher of 2nd degree manslaughter.

The jury retired to deliberate at 11:30 AM. At 2:30 PM, they returned with the expected verdict of not guilty. There was an “outburst of applause.” Thrasher’s wife, mother and friends embraced him and, “thus end[ed] one of the most celebrated murder cases in the history of Florida.” Weekly Sun, Feb. 26, 1891.

Note on sources: the above accounts are drawn from detailed newspaper reports. The Alachua County Clerk’s office can not find the actual trial transcript.

NEXT: Conclusions – did we learn anything or was this just a good story?

[image: Alachua County Courthouse, built 1884, from the Florida State Archives:http://floridamemory.com/items/show/2091 ]

One Comment

  1. Lisa S. November 20, 2013 Reply

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