People v. Montgomery

Decision Date13 October 1903
Citation176 N.Y. 219,68 N.E. 258
PartiesPEOPLE v. MONTGOMERY.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Appeal from Supreme Court, Trial Term, Delaware County.

Harvey D. Montgomery was convicted of murder, and appeals. Reversed.

Robert M. Moore, for appellant.

George A. Fisher, Dist. Atty. (Edwin D. Wagner, of counsel), for the people.

WERNER, J.

The gruesome tragedy out of which this appeal arises took place in the town of Hobart, Delaware county, on the 30th day of March, 1901, when Amelia B. Montgomery came to her death by means of a bullet wound inflicted by her husband, the defendant, who was subsequently tried and convicted upon the charge of murder in the first degree. The death and its cause having been established beyond controversy, the dominating issue of the trial was whether the act of the defendant proceeded from a conscious, sane, responsible mind, or whether it was an accident due to a seizure, said to be epileptic in its nature, as a result of which the defendant unconsciously or involuntarily caused his wife's death. Much evidence was adduced upon this issue. The prosecution presented a case which tended to invest the defendant's act with the elements of motive, premeditation, deliberation, and sanity. The defense sought to establish the irresponsibility of the defendant, but, as the sequel shows, without success. If, therefore, the sole question presented by this record were whether the verdict is supported by the weight of the evidence, we could not reverse the judgment without invading the province of the jury, for there was competent evidence upon every branch of the case, which raised a substantial issue of fact. There are presented for our consideration, however, many exceptions taken by the defense to the rulings of the learned trial court, and after a careful examination of them all we have arrived at the conclusion that two of these rulings appear to be so seriously erroneous as to necessitate a new trial. In view of this fact, and of the concession of the defense that the killing of Amelia B. Montgomery was the act of the defendant, we may safely and materially shorten the discussion of the case by confining our review to the matters which bear upon these two rulings.

The proof as to motive or motives proceeded along several distinct lines. Upon one branch of this question the prosecution produced evidence showing that during nearly the whole of the interval between the death of defendant's first wife in June, 1896, and his subsequent marriage in March, 1900, one Harriet Wood had lived with him as his housekeeper. She remained in his employ until the early autumn of 1900, or several months after his second marriage. It was contended for the prosecution that during this interval, between 1896 and 1900, the defendant had formed an illicit alliance with Harriet Wood, which, if not actually continued after defendant's second marriage, was covertly cherished by him, causing discord between him and his second wife, and creating one of the motives which inspired the commission of the crime charged in the indictment. In support of this theory the prosecution adduced evidence showing that in the spring of 1900 the defendant, with three hired men and Harriet Wood, went to the Kaaterskill Mountains, where the defendant had a contract to supply certain hotels and cottages with dairy products during the summer season, and lived there together for three or four days before the defendant went back to Hobart for his wife. These hired men testified that they slept upstairs but that the defendant and Harriet Wood did not sleep there; that they did not know where they slept, and that there was only one bed downstairs that they knew of. One of the men (Haynor) testified to a conversation with the defendant, in which the latter took him to task for talking about Harriet Wood at the neighboring hamlet of Jewett Center, and said: ‘There is no use of going to my wife and reporting anything concerning anything that has been or what is done. What a woman doesn't know never made her head ache, and such little things won't come out very well.’ This witness also testified that on one occasion when he was near the barn and Harriet Wood was outside of the house, the defendant called to her from a window, where he stood with his body nude as far down as the chest; that she went to the window, and there the two conversed while he stood thus exposed. He also referred to a conversation between the defendant and his wife disclosing some difference of opinion between the latter and Harriet Wood, as to which one should deliver cream and butter to Mrs. Surgraft, and he stated that defendant sometimes sent his wife away with cream and butter in the evening so that she did not return until the following morning. Another witness (Hollicus), who worked for the defendant from February to the latter part of May in 1900, testified to a conversation between the defendant and Harriet Wood shortly before the latter left the former. This witness stated that the defendant came into the barn at milking time, when Harriet Wood said to him: “Harvey, I didn't think you would give me up in this way, or as easy as that,' and he burst out crying, and called her in one end of the barn, and went talking to her. I could not hear what he said. After they got out there, I don't know how long they talked; should think fifteen or twenty minutes, half an hour, or something like that. She went away next day. Harvey Montgomery took her away. They went in the morning. He came back next day. Was gone over night.' This witness also testified that Mrs. Montgomery objected to Harriet Wood's driving her horse. Another hired man (Gray) testified that defendant requested him to ask Harriet Wood to stay with defendant when she was talking of leaving. There was also evidence to the effect that in the January preceding the homicide the defendant went several times to a Mrs. Clark, in Hobart, to ascertain if she did not want a good girl for housework, with the result that Harriet Wood commenced work at Clark's on February 1, 1901. This was closely followed by another visit from the defendant, at which he arranged with Mrs. Clark to furnish her with milk, and continued to do so until after the homicide. During this period defendant called at Clark's a number of times, and usually saw Harriet Wood. It was further shown that on the day of the homicide there was a conversation between the defendant and one Stevens, in which the former asked the latter and his wife to go up and take charge of the Kaaterskill contract, and, when Stevens demurred on the ground of his incompetency, the defendant said he would write a letter to Harriet Wood, and get her to go with them, to which Stevens replied that his wife would not go with her. Several witnesses also testified that immediately after the homicide Harriet Wood and the doctor were the only persons whom the defendant requested to have sent for.

To offset the force and effect of the foregoing circumstances upon the question of motive, the defense invoked a number of explanations and facts which appear in the record. We shall refer to only a few of them. The defendant was a man 59 years of age. He was a farmer extensively engaged in raising hogs, and conducted a dairy in the Catskills. These enterprises required hired men, some of whom boarded with him. He became a widower in 1896, and until his marriage in 1900 he needed a housekeeper. In these conditions he secured the services of Harriet Wood, who remained with him for a number of years. Members of defendant's family, and others who had worked for him, testified that they had never witnessed any improper conduct between him and Harriet Wood. From these and other matters which bore upon the relations of the defendant and Harriet Wood the defense argued that, even admitting all that was testified to in this behalf by the witnesses for the prosecution, nothing had been shown that was at all inconsistent with such an innocent and respectable intimacy as would be the natural outcome of a long period of constant association between a man and woman under the same roof in a rural community. The specific facts and circumstances thus presented by the prosecution and defense, respectively, to throw light upon the relations of the defendant and Harriet Wood, raised a legitimate issue upon the question of motive, which it was proper to submit for the consideration of the jury.

But the prosecution, not content with seeking to establish specific improprieties between the defendant and Harriet Wood, went further, and threw into the balance the latter's reputation for unchastity. Six witnesses testified that her reputation in that regard was had. That this evidence seems to have been based largely, if not entirely, upon her association with the defendant, is not without significance; for if the speech of people in that community; as reflected in the testimony of disinterested witnesses, characterized that association as sinister or meretricious, it is readily perceivable that it may have exercised a commanding influence upon the jury in reaching a determination upon the question of motive. The evidence of Harriet Wood's reputation for unchastity was directed to the question of motive, and to no other. That question obviously bore a very intimate relation to the defendant's plea of irresponsibility, and it seems to be reasonably clear that, if it was error to admit the evidence of Harriet Wood's reputation, it cannot be assumed to have been harmless to the defendant. We address ourselves, then, to the question whether the evidence of Harriet Wood's reputation for unchastity was competent. It is the settled law of this state that upon a trial for the murder of a husband or wife the improper relations of the accused survivor with persons of the opposite sex may be given in evidence upon the subject of motive. People v. Hendrickson, 8 How. Prac. 404; People v. Wileman, 44 Hun,...

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