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John Roberts

Around midnight on December 22, 1876, the residence of William H. Green in Astoria, New York, was robbed at gunpoint by approximately six masked men. The robbers rounded up the residents of the house, and left with 500 cigars, a veil, four coats, a pistol, and a gold pen and pencil. A second home in Astoria, owned by M.L. Hillier, was robbed in a similar manner on the same night.

On January 1, 1877, Police Captain William Murray received a tip connecting the stolen gold pencil to a Brooklyn resident named John James, alias Fatty Farrell. Murray sent officer Gilbert Carr to the residence associated with James, which was a house owned by John Stark. Carr went to that house. James wasn’t home, but John Roberts, Stark’s son-in-law was there. Roberts, a 32-year-old saloonkeeper, and his wife lived with Stark, and James had been staying in a room in the house. Carr asked Roberts if he would come to the station to speak to Murray. Roberts said he would. Murray spoke with Roberts and asked where he could locate James. Roberts said he did not know.

At the police station, Roberts was identified by victim Kate Green, who said she recognized his voice and hands. Roberts was arrested for the crimes at the Green house. Soon after, James and four others, including Jeremiah “Juggy” McCarty, were also arrested.

At the request of District Attorney Benjamin W. Downing, the six men were held in the Queens County Jail, chain-bolted to the floor, while awaiting trial, because Downing had expressed his concerns about the security of the Astoria jail. Roberts, a longtime Brooklyn resident, claimed he had not been in Astoria for years before police brought him there following his arrest. Roberts said he was innocent and knew nothing about James’s whereabouts on the night of the crime.

Roberts was indicted on January 24, 1877, and his jury trial took place in the Queens County Court of Oyer and Terminer on the same day, with Judge C.E. Pratt presiding. Charged with burglariously entering the Greens’ house and committing highway robbery, Roberts was represented by attorney James W. Ridgeway of Brooklyn. Downing prosecuted the case, and several family members of the Green family testified to the details of the robbery and identified Roberts. The details of the in-court identifications are not known from the available records.

The defense called John Stark, who said that on the night of the crimes, Roberts was at home playing cards with him and Henry Dorr from 7 p.m. until 1 a.m. the following morning. Dorr and two of Stark’s sons also testified that Roberts was home playing cards during this time frame, with one of the sons having seen Roberts at home a little later than 1 a.m. as well.

The jury deliberated for 10 minutes before finding Roberts guilty of all the charges. Judge Pratt sentenced Roberts to 20 years hard labor in Sing Sing prison.

His five co-defendants were each tried separately, though all represented by attorney George A. Mott, and found guilty.

Roberts’s wife retained Mott’s services for her husband after his conviction. In April 1877, Mott contacted New York Governor Lucius Robinson, requesting the Governor listen to his account of Roberts’s innocence. Mott told Robinson that he had knowledge that Roberts was not involved in the crime. Robinson told Mott he was not permitted to hear requests for pardon while the legislature was adjourned but would consider the request once the legislature resumed.

Judge Pratt, the trial judge, soon joined in Roberts’s petition for pardon, also expressing his belief that Roberts was innocent.

On October 21, 1878, Robinson pardoned Roberts on the basis of innocence, and Roberts was released from prison. Governor Levi P. Morton later restored Roberts’s citizenship rights on April 15, 1895, which was needed for Roberts to seek compensation for his false imprisonment.

The New York legislature then passed an act allowing Roberts to pursue damages for his false imprisonment before the state Board of Claims.

On May 17, 1895, Roberts filed a claim for $138,977 with the state Board of Pardons. The Board of Pardons heard testimony regarding this claim. The primary witness was Jeremiah McCarty, who testified that he was one of the masked robbers. By this time, McCarty had served out his sentence, with some reductions, and had been released. He testified that he knew all the men who were involved in robbing the Green home, and Roberts was not one of them. He said he had never met Roberts until they were arrested and jailed together.

On September 25, 1897, the New York Court of Claims awarded Roberts $7,500 in damages. Both the state and Roberts appealed. Roberts said the award was inadequate; the state said Roberts was not entitled to compensation. The state ultimately won, with the Appellate Division, Third Department, reversing the judgment and disallowing the claim on May 4, 1898. The Appellate Division found that the legislature did not hold the power to deem Roberts innocent and grant him the right to file a claim for compensation when Roberts still had an unreversed conviction for the crime rendered by the court, regardless of his pardon by the Governor. This holding was affirmed by the Court of Appeals of New York on October 3, 1899, and Roberts did not receive compensation.

- Meghan Barrett Cousino
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1876
Sentence:20 years
Age at the date of crime:32
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID