Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lizzie Borden

The Trial

In addition to the actual trial record itself, two works (discussed in detail below) chronicle the trial. The first is the book by Edmund Pearson, The Trial of Lizzie Borden, and the second is Robert Sullivan's Goodbye Lizzie Borden. Both are detailed, Pearson's being a day-by-day account, while Sullivan's is mostly a legal analysis of the trial.

A brief synopsis of the events of trial is helpful in understanding how the jury came to its conclusion. The trial lasted fourteen days, from June 5, 1893, to June 20, 1893. After a day to select the jury twelve middle-aged farmers and tradesmen the prosecution took about seven days to present its case.

Hosea M. Knowlton
Hosea M. Knowlton

Hosea Knowlton was a reluctant prosecutor, forced into the role by the politically timid Arthur Pillsbury, Attorney General of Massachusetts, who should have been the principal attorney for the prosecution. As Lizzie's trial date approached, Pillsbury felt the pressure building from Lizzie's supporters, particularly women's groups and religious organizations. Pillsbury directed Knowlton, District Attorney of Fall River, to lead the prosecution, and assigned William Moody, District Attorney of Essex County, to assist him. One author, Pearson, calls Knowlton "a courageous public official," while a second, Sullivan, considers his performance at the trial to be "a clear pattern of reluctance and lethargy." Shortly after the trial, Knowlton replaced Pillsbury as Attorney General.

William H. Moody
William H. Moody

Moody, according to Sullivan, was the most competent attorney involved in the Borden trial. He was the most thorough in the questioning of witnesses Knowlton, in contrast, would sometimes open a line of questioning and then walk away from it and Moody's arguments to the court about the admissibility of evidence were impressive, even if they failed to sway the three judges. His opening statement delineating the issues that the prosecution would bring to the demonstration of Lizzie's guilt were clear, firm, and logical. Moody was elected to Congress three times, served as Secretary of the Navy, then as Attorney General, both during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard classmate. In 1906, Roosevelt appointed Moody a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

William Moody made the opening statements for the prosecution. He presented three arguments. First, Lizzie was predisposed to murder her father and stepmother and that she had planned it. Second, that she did in fact murder them, and, third, that her behavior and contradictory testimony was not consistent with innocence. At one point, Moody threw a dress onto the prosecution table that he was to offer later in evidence. As the dress fell on the table, the tissue paper covering the fleshless skulls of the victims was wafted away. Lizzie slid to the floor in a dead faint.

Crucial to the prosecution case was the presentation of evidence that supplied a motive for the murders. Prosecutors Knowlton and Moody called witnesses to establish that Mr. Borden was intending to write a new will. An old will was never found, or did not exist, although Uncle John testified at first that Mr. Borden had told him that he had a will, and then testified that Mr. Borden had not told him of a will. The new will, according to Uncle John, would leave Emma and Lizzie each $25,000, with the remainder of Mr. Borden's half million dollar estate well over ten million in present-day dollars going to Abby. Further, Knowlton developed the additional motive of Mr. Borden's intent to dispose of his farm to Abby, just as he had done the year before with the duplex occupied by Abby's sister, Sarah Whitehead. Knowlton then turned to Lizzie's "predisposition" towards murder. However, two rulings by the court were crucial to Lizzie's eventual verdict of innocent.

On Saturday, June 10, the prosecution attempted to enter Lizzie's testimony from the inquest into the record. Robinson objected, since it was testimony from one who had not been formally charged. On Monday, when court resumed, the justices disallowed the introduction of Lizzie's contradictory inquest testimony.

On Wednesday, June 14, the prosecution called Eli Bence, the drug store clerk, to the stand, and the defense objected. After hearing arguments from both the prosecution and the defense as to the relevance of Lizzie's attempt to purchase prussic acid, the justices ruled the following day that Mr. Bence's testimony and the entire issue of her alleged attempt to buy poison was irrelevant and inadmissible.

The defense used only two days to present its case.

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