People v. Gilbert

Decision Date07 June 1910
Citation92 N.E. 85,199 N.Y. 10
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals


Appeal from Supreme Court, Trial Term, Cattaraugus County.

William Gilbert was convicted of murder in the first degree, and he appeals. Affirmed.

On the 29th of December, 1909, the defendant was convicted of the crime of murder in the first degree upon an indictment charging that on the 22d of August, 1909, at the city of Olean, in the county of Cattaraugus, with deliberation and premeditation, he ‘did kill and murder’ one Viola Hughes by shooting her with a revolver. From the judgment of conviction and from an order denying a motion for a new trial, as well as from an order overruling a demurrer to the indictment for insufficiency, he appealed to the Court of Appeals.

M. B. Jewell, for appellant.

George W. Cole, for the State.


Upon the trial it was conceded that Viola Hughes was killed by the discharge of a self-cocking revolver held by the defendant in his right hand. The people claim that the shooting was deliberate and premeditated; while the defendant claims it was accidental and involuntary. The previous relations of the parties, their feelings and actions toward each other, and the circumstances immediately surrounding the homicide become important in the effort to discover whether it was an accident or a crime.

On the 22d of August, 1909, the date of the tragedy, the defendant, a colored man of previous good character, was unmarried and 29 years of age, while Viola Hughes, the deceased, a colored woman, was 22 years of age and also unmarried. He was much attached to her, and paid her marked attention for several months. They were engaged to be married, and the 26th of August, 1909, had been agreed upon as the date when the marriage was to take place. Their relations were friendly and intimate until the night of August 2, 1909, when they had a quarrel, as he told the district attorney after his arrest. According to his statement, she asked him if he was going to take her to a picnic to be held the next day, and he said that was his intention. He continued: She wanted to know who I was going to dance with, and I said the first dance with her and then with somebody else, and she got mad and drew a knife.’ They both attended the picnic on the day following this interview, but were not seen together, although, as he testified, they met during the evening in the park. Up to this time he had been her almost every night for three or four months, but he never saw her alone again, although on two occasions they met in the presence of others, once about a week before the tragedy at a family party in the house of Frank Brooks, when games were played by all present, and once on the night before the tragedy, as will be noticed hereafter. On the first occasion, after leaving the house, the defendant lingered about for some time. A peculiar noise was heard outside about 20 minutes after he left, and Frank Brooks ‘set the dog at it,’ and, following the dog, saw the defendant a short distance from the house, and he said he had broken his suspenders. Brooks returned to the house and the defendant went on toward home.

Viola had been employed for more than a year as a domestic in the family of a physician in Olean, but about the time of the picnic she took a vacation and was visting a young colored girl named Florence Brooks, the daughter of Frank Brooks, who lived in a suburb of the city. Many years before Brooks had married a sister of the defendant, but he had not lived with her for eight or ten years. Their three children, Florence, Manzella, and Christina, together with David Pierce, a boarder who was engaged to be married to Florence, comprised the family of Brooks at the time of the homicide. During the three weeks that Viola was visiting at the Brooks' house, the defendant called to see her 11 times, but she avoided him on each occasion. During this period, Charles Gayton, a young colored man who was a nephew of the defendant, took her out boating or fishing several times on the Alleghany river near which Brooks lived. Although Gayton's attentions to Viola were not very marked, they made the defendant jealous and he watched them carefully. On the evening of August 19th, three days before the tragedy, he entered the Brooks house with Frank Brooks, and found Gayton inside apparently alone, but, as he testified, he ‘believed at that time that Viola had skipped upstairs, and that she had been with Gayton in the room downstairs.’ On the night before the tragedy the defendant started for the Brooks house, and, meeting Viola with Florence Brooks and David Pierce, turned and walked back with Pierce, the two girls going ahead. They stopped at the post office for a moment, while Florence went in to mail a letter and the girls then went to a show. While they were standing there the defendant, as he testified, told Viola that he would meet her at that place at about 10 o'clock and go home with her after the show, and she said she would wait for him. She did not wait for him, however, but walked home with Florence. The defendant was told by a boy that the girls had gone home with Gayton, and he went after them, more than a mile to the Brooks house, reaching there at about 11 o'clock, but did not gain admittance. Frant Brooks came home, and, finding him on the front porch crying, asked him what was the matter, and he said that Viola would not talk to him, and that he had never done anything to the girl. This conversation, however, which was sworn to by Brooks, was denied by the defendant when a witness on the stand.

The next day was Sunday, August 22d, the date of the tragedy. About noon that day the defendant took a revolver from the bed of Mrs. Middleton, his aunt, with whom he lived, but did not tell her that he had taken it and he had never taken it before. It was a self-cocking revolver, known as a ‘32-short,’ with five chambers, of which four were loaded. He took no other cartridges with him, but he tried to find more. He was not in the habit of carrying a revolver, although he had sometimes used one to hunt woodchucks, but he usually hunted them with a Winchester rifle. After taking the revolver, he went to the tannery where he was employed, a short distance from the Brooks house, and remained there for more than half an hour, walking around as if uneasy, but, as he said, for exercise. He then went to the Brooks house, but all of the family were absent. Shortly before he reached there, Manzella Brooks had left the house and locked the front door; the back door being bolted on the inside. Viola was alone upstairs. Manzella went to the house of Mrs. Simmons, a near neighbor, and while there she and the members of the Simmons family for some reason watched the defendant. They saw him go to the Brooks house at about 1 o'clock. He went to the front door, knocked and tried the door, but did not get in. He ran his hand along the casing above the door as if feeling for a key. He walked around the house several times, looked in the windows on the first floor, and, stepping back, looked up to the windows on the second floor, and finally sat down under a tree, a short distance in front of the porch. Mrs. Simmons went over to the pump near the Brooks house for water, but the defendant, who knew her well and was but a few feet from her, did not speak to her. He testified that he saw Viola once through a window upstairs, and thought that Gayton was in there with her. About 4 o'clock Florence came home, sat down on the porch, and the defendant visited with her talking pleasantly for about 15 minutes. He told her that he had come to take Viola out riding. In a short time Brooks and Pierce, who had been blackberrying together, returned, and after awhile the front door was unlocked and some members of the family went in, but the defendant did not enter the house for more than an hour.

The Brooks house faced north, and the front door opened into a hall; the dining room being on the right hand and the parlor on the left. The hall, about five feet wide in front, was narrowed by a stairway to two feet eight inches at the rear. There was no entrance to the stairway from the hall, but there was one from the kitchen immediately at the rear of the hall. On the left of the kitchen was a small storeroom, with no furniture, except an old couch.

About half past 5 the defendant, as he testified, looking through the hall into the kitchen, saw Viola there. Five minutes later he went into the kitchen himself, but Viola, Florence, and Pierce had gone into the storeroom and closed the door. When he reached the kitchen, he found no one there, but Gayton came in very soon, and seeing him standing near the door of the storeroom, said, ‘Hello, Will.’ Florence heard the salutation, and came from the storeroom into the kitchen, closing the door after her. Pierce came out at about the same time and asked the defendant to take a seat, but he declined. At this time Gayton sat in a chair on the west side of the kitchen, Pierce took a seat on the south side, and Florence began to cut bread by a cupboard on the west side, while the defendant continued to stand by the wall near the door of the storeroom. Manzella had gone upstairs, and Brooks was at the barn taking care of his horse. The defendant stepped to the door of the storeroom, when Viola met him in the doorway and tried to get by him, apparently intending to go upstairs. Speaking pleasantly, he said he wanted to talk with her, and, taking hold of her arm, asked her to come into the parlor. She said she wanted nothing to do with him. He said, ‘What have I ever done to you?’ and she replied, ‘You have done a whole lot to me,’ and struggled toward the stairway, saying that she was going upstairs. He had hold of her by the left arm, and she grasped the thin casing of the stair doorway nearest the hall with her right hand. He pulled her into the hall, and, in doing so, turned her around so that her...

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