There are few better stories in the true crime genre than that of the miscarriage of justice being overturned at the very last minute and resulting the true culprit being brought to account. When the evidence that enables this to happen is generated by what is effectively the very birth of the forensic techniques we now take for granted, the story of Charlie Stielow, told in Colin Evans’ Slaughter on a Snowy Morn becomes an even more tantalising prospect.
A barely literate German immigrant struggling to support his ever growing family, Charlie Stielow finds himself in 1915 working for a farmer in upstate New York. Within days of starting his new post, Charlie and his family awake to the grim reality that both his new employer and his housekeeper have been murdered. CSIs or Forensic Science Services were beyond comprehension in 1915 – the science simply didn’t exist; or in the fields where it did, the application of that science hadn’t been considered.
Colin Evans takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the investigation – if it can indeed be called an investigation – that leads to Charlie Stielow being indicted for both killings. The methods employed by the District Attorney and the local law enforcement agencies are dubious to say the very least, and Stielow is the only suspect that ever really enters the frame. Having been coerced into a confession by dastardly local lawmen (but refusing to sign a statement), he stands trial for the double murder, at a time when anti German feelings were running high following the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-Boat. Not only that, but the prosecution employed the services of one Albert Hamilton, a notoriously unreliable forensic “expert” to “prove” that the weapons used in the murders had been those that belonged to Stielow.
Under the circumstances, Stielow’s defence didn’t stand a chance, and he soon found himself in Sing Sing prison awaiting an appointment with the electric chair. By now, more and more people capable of exerting influence were forming the opinion that actually Stielow was innocent, and began to campaign for his release.
Eventually, thanks to pressure from the likes of Grace Humiston (America’s most celebrated female lawyer) and Charles E Waite (the man whose experts revealed the truth about who had actually fired the shots), the New York state Governor Charles Whitman had no alternative but to pardon Stielow, despite the fact that this would ultimately cause the end of his political aspirations; local feeling was so polarized against the Stielow case, having borne the extravagant costs of the prosecution and its so-called “expert” witnesses.
But Stielow’s release is not the end of the story, and whilst the human element is key, it is Philip O. Gravelle and John H. Fisher’s invention of the comparison microscope that damns Hamilton’s ballistic evidence and would go on to become a feature of a great many modern courtrooms that is perhaps the most historically significant aspect of the story. Add that to the desire to prove a man’s innocence using every available means, and with a cast of characters brought to life in superb style by Evans, Slaughter on a Snowy Morn cannot fail to keep you gripped until the very last page.
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