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In 1915, at the age of 37, Charles Stielow was convicted of the murder of two people in West Shelby, New York, and sentenced to death. Stielow’s brother-in-law, Nelson Green, age 19, was convicted of first-degree murder for the same crime and was sentenced to death by electrocution. Stielow and Green, both of whom were white, were exonerated by Governor Charles S. Whitman in 1918 after the real perpetrators confessed to the murders and ballistics evidence confirmed Stielow’s and Green’s innocence.
On March 21, 1915, between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m., Charles B. Phelps, a 90-year-old farmer, and his housekeeper, Margaret Wolcott, were shot and killed in Phelps’ home with a .22-caliber revolver. About one week prior to the murders, Phelps had hired Charles Stielow as a farm hand. Stielow and Green lived in a tenant house owned by Phelps across the street from the murder scene. The motive for the crime appeared to have been robbery, as Phelps had withdrawn a substantial sum of money from a bank prior to the murders. The sheriff found the contents of the bureau drawers in Phelps’ bedroom strewn about and all of his money gone. Stielow claimed that he had not heard the shots, and that he and Green were both sleeping at the time the murders.
A coroner’s inquest was held on March 26, 1915. The key witnesses were Stielow and Green, who testified that on the night of the murders they heard cries from across the street, but that when they had gotten up and looked out the door, they did not hear or see anything suspicious so they went back to bed. Both men denied owning a gun.
The local authorities hired George Newton, a private detective from Buffalo, New York, to investigate the case. Shortly after taking over the investigation, Newton discovered that Stielow owned a .22 caliber revolver. Based on that discovery, Stielow and Green were arrested on April 21, l915 and were questioned by detectives. Stielow made a lengthy statement in writing in which he denied any guilt, but admitted that he and his family had made false statements and had testified falsely before the coroner. The next morning, Stielow voluntarily told the sheriff that he wanted to make another statement after he saw his wife. On April 23, 1915, Stielow made a full confession to having committed the murders with Green. Stielow claimed that he obtained the gun from his house, but that Green actually did the shooting in Stielow’s direction. Stielow refused, however, to sign a written confession. The day of his arrest, Green confessed to being complicit in the murders, but charged Stielow with actually shooting the victims. On May 15, 1916, Green made another statement in which he changed some facts contained in his earlier statement but maintained that Stielow had done the shooting.
In an effort to determine if Stielow’s .22-caliber revolver was the murder weapon, Newton hired Dr. Albert Hamilton from Auburn, New York, who, with less than a high school education and using a phony medical degree, held himself out as an expert in various fields, including firearms identification. Hamilton examined the four bullets taken from the two victims as well as Stielow’s .22-caliber revolver and concluded, without test-firing Stielow’s gun, that it had fired the bullets that had killed Phelps and Wolcott.
Stielow was indicted on charges of first-degree murder and brought to trial before Justice Cuthbert W. Pound on July 11, 1915. At trial, Hamilton testified that he found nine bumps inside the muzzle end of Stielow’s revolver and that these “projections" had made nine corresponding scratches on the four bullets taken from the victims. Hamilton testified that no other gun could have fired the bullets taken from the victims.
At trial, Stielow’s defense attorney, David A. White, argued that Stielow’s confession had been coerced and was therefore not admissible. Justice Pound ruled against the defense and admitted the testimony of Newton and the three police officers who had interrogated Stielow. Stielow’s alleged confession went into considerable detail, telling how Stielow and Green had gone in the house to rob it and how Green had shot Phelps and Wolcott when they tried to interrupt the robbery. The defense also offered testimony from Stielow and his wife and motherin-law that Stielow had not left the house on the night of the murders. Green’s legal counsel assisted Stielow’s counsel at trial.
On July 23, 1915, the jury found Stielow guilty of murder in the first degree. Stielow was sentenced to death by electrocution. Stielow was sent to Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, to await his execution on April 9, 1916. Stielow’s conviction was affirmed on appeal on February 22, 1916.
Following Stielow’s murder conviction and death sentence, Green pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree in order to avoid a death sentence. Green was sentenced to life imprisonment.
During Stielow’s incarceration at Sing Sing, he proclaimed his innocence saying that his confession had been coerced. Spencer Miller, Jr., then Deputy Warden at Sing Sing, and others became convinced that Stielow was innocent. A number of philanthropic organizations and attorneys took up his case, which had begun to attract statewide attention. Stielow’s supporters learned that Stielow was mentally handicapped and could not read or write. In their opinion, the confession attributed to Stielow contained words not within Stielow’s vocabulary and phrases beyond his comprehension. They concluded that Detective Newton had terrorized Stielow until he confessed to the murders. It was also believed that the detectives responsible for the arrests were liberally rewarded by Orleans County.
On April 8, 1916, the eve of Stielow’s execution, Governor Whitman granted a stay of his execution. A motion for a new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence was denied and Stielow’s execution was rescheduled for July 15, 1916. On July 14, 1916, a second application was made for a new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence. Numerous affidavits were submitted in support of the motion, including one from Nelson Green taken at Auburn prison, swearing that he was not guilty, that he and Stielow slept together on the night of the crime, and that he had been taken by Newton to a hotel and was told by Newton that Stielow had implicated him as the murderer, and that Newton threatened him if he did not confess. Green also swore that he pleaded guilty because he was afraid of Newton and was told by his attorney that if he did not plead guilty, he would go to the electric chair. The Court discounted many of the affidavits as hearsay, found the story set forth in Green’s affidavit as highly improbable, and denied that motion on July 26. Stielow’s execution was set for July 29, 1916.
On July 27, 1916, Stielow’s supporters went to Albany to appeal to Governor Whitman on Stielow’s behalf. The Governor rejected their pleas on July 28. Five hours before Stielow was to be executed, his supporters went to the home of Justice Charles L. Guy and asked him to consider the evidence in the case. Justice Guy reviewed the evidence and telephoned Sing Sing Prison to inform the warden that he was issuing a stay to consider new evidence presented to him. Justice Guy also issued a summons to the District Attorney of Orleans County to appear in court in Rochester on August 22, 1916 to show cause why a new trial should not be granted.
Before that hearing, Erwin King, a junk dealer, was arrested in an unrelated robbery and assault case for which Clarence F. O’Connell was already serving time. King had been seen in Phelps’ neighborhood on the date of the murder, and some people suspected that he knew something about the crime, although he was never taken into custody and no evidence to that effect had been found. Though his arrest was unrelated to the Phelps and Wolcott murders, on August 11, 1916, King confessed that O’Connell had murdered Phelps and Wolcott and that he had been O’Connell's accomplice in the crimes. Some of Stielow’s supporters were present when King’s confession was recorded. O’Connell swore that King’s confession was false, but Stielow’s supporters had obtained other evidence against O’Connell. This evidence included an affidavit from someone with whom O’Connell boarded stating that O’Connell was absent the night of the Phelps and Wolcott murders. King retracted his confession two days later.
The hearing in Rochester ordered by Justice Guy took place before Justice Adolph J. Rodenbeck on September 27, 1916. The issues considered were the defects or imperfections on the bullets and revolver, the condition of the defendant’s mind, the threats or acts of intimidation on the defendant by police, alleged promises of immunity, and the confession of King. Justice Rodenback denied the request for a new trial, and Stielow was scheduled to die during the week of December 11, 1916.
Now that all judicial remedies had been exhausted, Stielow’s supporters once again approached Governor Whitman, an experienced criminal lawyer who had previously refused to interfere (other than granting temporary stays) while judicial remedies were available to Stielow, and this time, Whitman set a public hearing for November 28, 1916. On December 8, following the public hearing, Governor Whitman commuted Stielow’s death sentence to life imprisonment on the ground that, while he believed Stielow was guilty, he could not escape his belief that there was perhaps more than a possibility that he was innocent.
The fight for Stielow continued as the New York World became interested in his case. Acting for the World, Thomas O’Grady, a Buffalo detective, began collecting evidence. O’Grady had another detective put in the same jail cell with Erwin King, who was serving time for perjury. The detective obtained King’s confidence and later delivered to O’Grady letters that King had written to family and friends and asked him to smuggle out of jail. These letters, published by The World, show King’s knowledge of the Phelps and Wolcott murders and his efforts to divert suspicion from himself. These letters and other evidence were presented to Governor Whitman on January 31, 1917, and so impressed the Governor that he requested and received from the state legislature a special appropriation of $25,000 for a reinvestigation of the case. The Governor asked George H. Bond, a former district attorney from Syracuse, New York, to lead the investigation.
Bond paid particular attention to the circumstances of Stielow’s confession. In addition, it was learned that a dictograph had been used to record the conversations of Stielow with Green, and not a single incriminating remark was found in the recordings. One of the agents employed by Newton, who spent 19 days in jail with Stielow in the guise of a prisoner, admitted that Stielow provided no incriminating evidence. This agent reported that Stielow consistently denied knowing who had committed the crime and said that the detectives had tried to get him to sign a confession that was a lie. Bond also focused on the ballistic testimony and engaged Captain Henry Jones, the firearms expert with the New York City Police Department. Jones inspected the gun and determined that it had not been fired in three or four years. Captain Jones then fired several rounds through the weapon into cotton batting. Jones compared the bullets taken from the victims with the ones fired from Stielow’s gun and could see with his naked eye that they were dissimilar. The bullets taken from the victims’ bodies were smooth while the bullets retrieved from the cotton batting were gouged and gnawed. To confirm their conclusions, Jones took the two sets of bullets to Max Poser, a noted expert in microscopy, who examined them and concluded that Stielow’s gun could not have been the murder weapon.
In December 1917, Elwin King made a second full and voluntary confession implicating himself and O’Connell in the deaths of Wolcott and Phelps. King was prepared to plead guilty to the murder and be sentenced. He was arraigned before Justice Wesley C. Dudley in December 1917. However, because a guilty plea would be inconsistent with Stielow’s standing jury verdict, Justice Dudley ordered, in accordance with the law, that a not guilty plea be entered and the matter submitted to the Grand Jury. On December 21, 1917, the Grand Jury advised the court that it had nothing to report.
In the spring of 1918, Governor Whitman reviewed Bond’s report and was profoundly impressed that Bond, who began the investigation convinced of Stielow’s guilt, now believed he was innocent. On April 16, 1918, Governor Whitman commuted Stielow’s and Green’s sentences and ordered them released from jail after three years of confinement. On December 20, 1918, Governor Whitman restored both men’s full citizenship rights, and this restoration carried with it a full pardon.
– Researched by Kerry Ford Cunningham
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.