In 1913, John Arthur Pender was convicted of murdering a woman and her young child and sentenced to death in a second trial following a hung jury in his first trial. When the Oregon Supreme Court later upheld his conviction, it also conceded that the evidence against Pender was conflicting. Shortly afterward, Oregon’s death penalty was repealed and Pender’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison. The confession of a mental patient (later recanted) to the murders led to further investigation of the crime. Pender was pardoned when the second trial judge and other prominent persons urged that clemency be granted. By then, Pender had spent over nine years in prison.
On the morning of September 5, 1911, Mrs. G. S. Sierks, a neighbor of Daisy Wehrman’s, visited the Wehrman cabin located in a remote area of Columbia County, Oregon, only to find the door padlocked from the outside and, when she looked through the window, Wehrman’s body lying on a bed. Sierks notified the sheriff, who entered the cabin and found Wehrman’s semi-nude body and that of her toddler son, Harold, each shot three times. An inquest conducted in the cabin revealed the bullets were .38 caliber from a Colt revolver and that Wehrman’s skull had been fractured, likely by a bloodied hatchet found in the cabin. The following day, September 7, the medical examiner estimated that the victims had been dead for approximately three days.
John Arthur Pender lived in a tent about a mile from the Wehrman cabin and was well acquainted with the family and their habits. Neighbors noted that he had scratches on the left side of his face, which the sheriff thought Pender did not satisfactorily explain. Wehrman was known to have long fingernails and, because she had been shot at close range, it was concluded that she might have had an opportunity to inflict these scratches.
The sheriff’s investigation revealed that on September 2, Rachel Bates, another neighbor, had, in Pender’s presence, deposited a package addressed to Wehrman into the community mailbox which was situated on a stump near Pender’s tent. Pender testified that he had looked into the community mailbox on September 3 and that it was empty at that time. The Bates package, together with a newspaper for Wehrman’s husband, Frank, which Pender allegedly received when he retrieved the community mail from the post office, were found unopened inside the Wehrman cabin during the inquest. Frank Wehrman testified that the newspaper and the Bates package had not been brought to the cabin before he left on the evening of September 3 for his job as a baker in Portland, where he also stayed during the week.
It was further discovered that, on the evening of September 4, Pender had not wound his clock or put up his chickens until late. He had not milked a cow or fed its calf, both of which had been left in his care. He did not have a light on in his tent until late, and then it burned all evening. Based on all these factors, on September 15, Pender was arrested for the murder of Daisy Wehrman and her son. One month later, an indictment was returned against Pender for first-degree murder. Unable to reach a verdict, the jury was discharged in June 1912.
A second trial began in October 1913. A trunk containing a loaded Colt revolver – thought to be the murder weapon – was located in the cabin of J. H. Riley, who lived near Pender’s tent. The brass plates on the trunk showed evidence of tampering. Riley had lent the revolver to Pender on occasion so that he could protect his poultry, which he raised for a living. Riley testified that Pender knew the location of the revolver since he often visited Riley’s cabin. It was also claimed that a claw hammer, which belonged to Pender and was found in a field weeks after his arrest, had been the implement used to pry open the trunk. The trunk, claw hammer, and gun were introduced into evidence.
The State argued that all the clues in the case appeared to be connected to Pender. However, the case was entirely circumstantial and it appeared that Pender was the only person investigated despite the presence of a logging camp nearby.
Pender testified that he was at home during the evening of the murders and that he had no knowledge of the crime other than what he had learned during the proceedings. Firearm experts were unable to replicate the curious markings on the bullets recovered and held in evidence through subsequent firings of the Riley gun. Pender’s counsel brought to the court’s attention that the postal worker who testified against Pender stated that he was coerced by detectives to fix the date when the newspaper was delivered as September 4. On November 22, 1913, Pender was convicted of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to be hanged in February 1914.
Just before Pender’s execution date, the Governor issued a stay while Pender’s motion for a rehearing was pending. In September 1914, the Supreme Court of Oregon denied Pender’s request for a rehearing, and Pender was set to have a new date scheduled for his execution. However, Pender’s sentence was commuted to life in prison by Governor Oswald West when Oregon abolished the death penalty in November 1914.
George A. Thacher, a criminologist and director of the Oregon Prisoners’ Aid Society, became interested in Pender’s case and began reinvestigating the crime and working for his release. In January 1915, John G. H. Sierks, the son of the woman who found the Wehrman bodies, and a patient at the Oregon State Mental Hospital, confessed to the murders, both in a letter to his father and to the police, saying that he had wanted to get even with Pender for threatening his father, who had apparently shot Pender’s dog. John G. H. Sierks stated that he had thus decided to frame Pender for the murders. Several days later, he recanted his confession and there was only circumstantial evidence to otherwise support the belief that Sierks was the true killer. The renewed investigation found a new reputable witness, a farmer named L. Nitchman, who had spoken with John G. H. Sierks the weekend of the murder and found him to be crying and frightened, with his face scratched and watch face broken, continually apologizing.
The fate of Pender, who had turned down offers of parole and steadfastly maintained his innocence, was left to the current governor of Oregon, James Withycombe. Though reportedly convinced of Pender’s innocence, he hesitated to release him because he feared repercussions. A series of grisly murders in Oregon had resulted in a nervous public. Five years later, on September 11, 1920, Governor Ben Olcott pardoned Pender, stating he was convinced of Pender’s innocence, and Pender was released.
In November 1927, Pender was convicted of criminal assault of a 15-year-old high school girl, and received a life sentence. On November 14, 1950, he died in prison.
– Researched by Yvonne Garber
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
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