I am cataloguing unexpected moments that created indelible memories and influenced the way I see the world. Looking back, events that seemed anecdotal at the time grew in importance as they resurfaced, forcing me to reconsider them, perhaps learn from them. Here’s one I am thinking about now.
On a lush spring morning in Beckley, West Virginia in the early 1980’s, I was discussing a client’s purchase of coal mining rights and tipple fees with a local lawyer. It was a friendly negotiation, and we had lunch together at his club, a reserved table at a busy diner on the main street, with a view of the town square and courthouse. The courthouse steps filled with excited people halfway through the meal, and a waiter soon came over to announce that Clem was acquitted. Conversation in the diner paused, then rose to air brake volume.
The lawyer excused himself, chatted with a new arrival at the diner, and returned to tell me this story. I don’t remember the exact words, but it’s accurate and has the additional benefit if being mostly true.
The defendant in this murder case was a young man, born and raised in Beckley, who followed his family tradition and worked as a coal miner. He was a star football quarterback in high school, an accomplished hunter, and generous to a fault, always willing to share what was in his well-stocked game larder. He lived with his parents when he began working in the mine and helped with family finances. After a while, he found a run-down cottage on a knoll overlooking evergreen timber lands and a pond. It was close to town and bordered little used railroad tracks at the bottom of the hollow.
Clem bought the cottage, fixed it up, and decided the one thing it needed was a girl from town that he’d known since high school. Busy as he’d been working and helping his parents, he wasn’t aware that Lilly was involved in a series of romances in town, none of which resulted in a diamond ring. She said she loved the cottage and him, and they soon married.
A witness at the trial confirmed that Lilly had a flexible approach to marriage vows and a continuing attraction to one of the McMillan boys. He and Lilly decided they would both be better off without Clem, but with the cottage.
Lilly told Clem she was going to visit her mother for a couple of days, and the McMillan boy with two brothers and a friend decided that a good time to visit Clem would be real early the next morning.
Clem admitted Lilly’s departure was unusual, mainly because she couldn’t stand her mother, and had a nagging doubt about her fidelity because she always had a headache or something when he felt romantic. Without thinking too much about it, he camped out on the hill above the hollow that night to enjoy the full moon and soft breezes. He took along his deer rifle.
At about one o’clock, Clem noticed four figures carrying rifles silhouetted against the moonlit silvery rails at the bottom of the hollow heading toward his cottage. He rubbed some spit on the front sight of his Winchester so the reflected moonlight would help define any available target. The figures below rushed toward his cottage with rifles raised. They were as clear as fireflies at dusk.
The coroner reported that of the three McMillan boys, two were shot clean through the head and one through the chest with .30-30 rounds. The friend, Jake Miller, was shot through the left buttock, mainly because he was running away down the tracks. He testified at the trial about the night’s proceedings and noted that his left leg didn’t work so good anymore.
The prosecution said it was out-and-out murder, and the defense said it was preemptive self-defense. I had never heard of such a defense before, but that didn’t bother the jury. They acquitted Clem.
The man my lawyer friend spoke with was a juror. He explained that the McMillan boys were trouble since Jesus was a pup. They’d caused more misery, heartbreak, and ruin than befell Sodom and Gomorrah. Those boys deserved killing. Aside from being in the right, the jury believed Clem had provided a public service. If they could, they would have awarded him damages, but that just couldn’t figure out how to do that. They decided on a speedy acquittal instead.
I admit to being bemused by this story. Had rough West Virginia justice prevailed? I thought considered the facts of the case. Clem had gone to the top of the hill that night on a hunch and was safely out of harm’s way from any attack. The local jury was influenced by the McMillan boys’ past misdeeds, but they were dead and couldn’t defend themselves. The defense lawyer made up a non-existent legal excuse to bamboozle the jury. Was this justice or the act of vigilantes? Was this a precursor of what passes for justice in some jurisdictions today?
Answers are not coming easily.