Judge Isaac Parker, the famed hanging judge, lost much of his authority toward the end of his service on the bench at Fort Smith, Arkansas in the late 1800’s.
Congress enacted a law in 1889 giving the Supreme Court the right to review important criminal cases. Convicted felons could petition the president to change their sentence or ask their trial judge to be retried. Judge Parker seldom granted a new trial.
The new law proved to be a godsend for those on the wrong side of the law because the Supreme Court was often lenient. The high court ruled that thirty of forty-six prisoners sentenced to hang by Judge Parker late in his career had not had a fair trial. Over half of those were discharged or won acquittals when they were retried. Judge Parker was livid.
“For twenty long laborious years I have sought to protect innocent human life,” Judge Parker said. “I have sought to enforce and uphold the laws of the United States against these men of crime.
“Murders are on the increase and I attribute it to the Supreme Court. The murderer has a long breathing spell before his case comes before the Supreme Court and then the conviction may be quashed on the flimsiest of technicalities.
“The court must be opposed to capital punishment as far as I can see because they never touch on the merits of these cases. They seem to try to reason the effect of the law away.
“The high court’s mania for reversing murder cases, numerous and unwarranted reversals, emboldens these men of blood, thus increasing the number of murders,” Judge Parker would later say. “Citizens should demand that the courts stop the hairsplitting distinctions in favor of the criminal at the expense of your honest everyday citizen. It is sapping the life and power out of the nation.
“Their decisions show want of knowledge of either the facts or the law of the cases. Many of the cases actually show the venom of the judges against the trial judge. They seem to think the trial judge is the author of the crimes.”
In 1889 President Benjamin Harrison offered Judge Parker an easier judgeship over the eastern district of Arkansas. He considered it briefly before deciding to stay at Fort Smith.
He had done his best to rid the district of murderers but the Justice Department continued to find what they considered to be gross errors in his trials.
(Hundreds of people came out to witness the hangings at Fort Smith. This disturbed Judge Parker and he limited attendance at the hangings by invitation to officials, family and news.)
“In most of these cases the prisoners are probably guilty and would most likely be convicted if the court submitted the cases with the minimum statement of law,” Assistant Attorney General Edward Whitney said. “There is no need to usurp the jury’s function.”
“The judge, due to his great desire to secure convictions is the best friend of the criminals for he insures them reversals. He gives them a chance of escape that the most competent criminal lawyers could not possibly accomplish.”
Judge Parker called the comments outrageous and stated further that his instructions to the juries were proper. Yet he rested his case on moral rather than legal grounds.
“I’ve been part of the great battle between the law’s supremacy and human life and human rights on the one hand, and the bloody, wicked, unrelenting men of crime on the other,” Parker averred. “We’ve fought the worst bands of desperadoes, murderers and outlaws to be found in any civilized land.”
Judge Parker was greatly troubled in 1895 when Annie Maledon was murdered. She was the 18-year old daughter of his Lord High Executioner George Maledon. Frank Carver was captured and tried in Parker’s court, receiving a death sentence. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and Carver was granted a reprieve. Initially Maledon was irate but it changed to depression. He resigned his post and left Fort Smith.
Judge Parker was also disheartened. His health deteriorated after losing his ally and friend.
“There needs to be a special appellate court of judges who are learned in criminal law,” he said, reaffirming his beliefs from his deathbed the following year. “Supreme Court justices are men from the civil walks and it is not surprising that they are liable to err in criminal cases.
“This court has done more than any other to uphold the laws of the land. It has taught a great object lesson to the people of the West and that is they must rely on the strong judicial arm of the government when that arm is upheld by a court and jury.”
Following his death many, including some of his critics, praised Judge Parker as the greatest frontier judge America ever had. Copyright Jadon Gibson 2018
Editor’s note: Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both nostalgic and historical in nature and can be read periodically at bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single posting!
A Voice for God – a voice for good
My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me.
I was thinking back to the 1940’s, my earliest of years, while our family lived on Sanctified Hill in Cumberland, Kentucky.
My 8-year old brother Larry innocently tossed a hammer from the dirt road in front of the house when I was five. I was near the gate when it hit me in the forehead. It caused quite a ‘pump-knot’ but no lasting ill effect thank God, although I have a crack on my forehead. On second thought a lot of folks do think that I’m a little scatter-brained. Ha!
About two years later, though ill-advised, I learned to ride a bicycle on Sanctified Hill. It was a dangerous place as the hillside was steep.
Within a year or so of that time our family was visiting my Dad’s sister and her husband about 300 yards from where we lived. At one point, about mid-afternoon, two or three of us were waiting for them in the car when it began inching backwards and in danger of rolling off the road and down the hill. Either Dad or Uncle Tim heard us yelling or noticed our plight and came running, jumped in and stopped the car. That was the beginning of the super heroes, in our estimation at least.
I recall years later I took my son Richard to a baseball field in Rolla, Missouri, where we were living at the time. Though he had the customary spills that we all had, he learned to ride a bike on that sunshiny day. Still later my son Robert learned the art of bike-riding in our yard, also in Rolla. When he finally found his balance and got the jist of it, he didn’t know how to stop. He eventually rode the bike under and crashed into a pear tree. He grabbed ahold of a limb, keeping him from falling. I told him to hang on and quickly ran in the house, grabbed a camera and returned to take a great pic of him. It shows him smiling happily and still holding on to the tree limb with the bike below. The picture shows his pride at accomplishing the art of bike-riding.
I recall in my initial ‘Voice from God’ I wrote of a Sunday afternoon ride in about 1945 when five years of age. As we passed through Lynch, KY, I started to roll down the window but accidentally opened the door instead. I swung out on the door, holding on for dear life. Mom and Dad noticed right away and hit the brakes, closing the door with me still hanging on, safely back inside. My good Lord in Heaven must have realized I had some redeeming value.
My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. Some of his angels are among us today… watching over his people. I pray He watches over you and your loved ones.