Sentenced to life in prison in 1935 for the murder of an unknown transient person in Pasco, Washington, Geither Horn was released 24 years later after testimony of a state patrolman revealed that the patrolman, sheriff and another officer obtained Horn’s confession through the use of threats and coercion.
In May 1935, an unknown transient man was found dead near a homeless shelter in Pasco, Washington. The victim had been sodomized, strangled, and hit over the head with a heavy object. Three weeks later, the Franklin County prosecutor charged Horn with the murder. Horn, a 41-year-old black man, was being held in jail in Spokane, Washington, on unrelated charges. He was arrested there by the Franklin County Sheriff, Noah J. Bailie, and was transported to the Franklin County jail. At that time, Sheriff Bailie confiscated Horn’s shoes, which he later purportedly matched to footprints found at the scene of the murder.
Horn was held in the Franklin County jail for approximately 60 days before he was appointed counsel and arraigned on the charge. During that time, Horn was interrogated repeatedly by Sheriff Bailie and the county prosecutor and encouraged to confess to the murder, which Horn repeatedly refused to do. On more than one occasion, Horn was taken from his cell to a location near the scene of the crime and also to a nearby cemetery. On at least one of the times when Horn was taken on such a field trip, it was dark. On this particular occasion, Horn was taken from his cell by Sheriff Bailie, Deputy Sheriff Arthur Greenwood and State Patrolman Marvin Carnahan. The three armed officers took Horn near a cemetery and ordered him out of the police vehicle. Horn testified that Sheriff Bailie threatened to shoot him and took him near an open grave where he threatened to bury him alive unless he confessed to the murder. The next day, Horn, who could not read or write, was taken to the county prosecutor’s office, where he signed a written confession.
At trial, witnesses testified that they had seen Horn leaving the shelter with the victim, that they had heard the two men arguing about ending “immoral activities,” and that Horn was the last person seen with the victim alive. Sheriff Bailie testified that Horn orally confessed to the crime and also that Horn’s shoes matched footprints found at the scene. Deputy Greenwood and Patrolman Carnahan also testified to Horn's oral confession. Over the objection of Horn’s defense counsel, the written confession Horn signed was introduced. In order to rebut the confession, Horn was called to the stand in his own defense, opening the door for the prosecution to impeach Horn with his prior criminal record, which included a prior conviction for sodomy, among other things.
Horn was found guilty by the jury and sentenced to life in prison by the trial judge in November 1935. Horn did not have the means to appeal his conviction and remained in prison at the State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington, without further proceedings until a fellow inmate helped him prepare a petition for habeas corpus to the Washington Supreme Court in December 1957.
Pursuant to an order of reference from the state Supreme Court, Franklin County Superior Court Judge James J. Lawless held a fact-finding hearing regarding Horn’s conviction. In his Findings of Fact, Judge Lawless reported to the Supreme Court that there was uncertainty as to whether Horn was taken to an open grave, but there was no question that Horn was taken to the cemetery by the armed officers and that Horn was fearful. Judge Lawless found that the only purpose for the after dark field trip on which the three armed officers took Horn to the cemetery was to coerce Horn into confessing. In his informal Memoranda of Decision to the Supreme Court, Judge Lawless stated that he believed the jury’s guilty verdict was based on, in order of importance: (1) loathing of sodomy; (2) footprints and testimony about the parties (Horn and the victim) being seen together; and (3) oral admission and confession. Judge Lawless concluded that Horn’s petition for habeas corpus should be resolved in his favor. The Washington Supreme Court denied the petition.
Horn’s petition for writ of certiorari was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, without prejudice to file a federal habeas petition. Horn filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on January 16, 1959. Judge Gus Soloman took testimony at the hearing on Horn’s petition. For the first time, State Patrolman Carnahan testified at this hearing about a plan among the three officers to obtain a confession from Horn. According to Carnahan, the three officers planned to have a conversation among themselves, within Horn’s earshot, about a murder in Yakima County, Washington, that was very similar to the murder for which Horn was being held. The officers planned to, and did, discuss how the two crimes were very similar, how the Yakima County prosecutor was known for being very tough and that he was eager to try Horn for the murder. The officers also planned to, and did, talk about how the Franklin County prosecutor was reasonable and Horn would be well advised to confess to the crime in Franklin County. All three officers testified that they believed Horn had overheard their conversation.
Judge Soloman granted Horn’s petition for habeas corpus. In his Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, he found that Horn’s confession was obtained by trickery and coercion and held that the admission of the confession at trial violated the 14th Amendment. Judge Soloman also held that the State’s failure to arraign Horn or appoint him an attorney until approximately 60 days after his arrest violated the 14th Amendment. On July 22, 1959, more than 24 years after his arrest, Horn was given an earned parole and released from prison.
After his release, Horn filed a lawsuit against Bailie, Greenwood, and Carnahan in the United States District Court for violation of his civil rights, which was ultimately settled by the parties privately outside of court. In 1963, the Washington State Legislature awarded Horn $6,000, paid in $250 monthly installments, as indemnity for his unjust imprisonment.
- Researched by Amy L. Barrows and Tracy Helser
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.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.