Condy Dabney

Mistaken identity of corpse led to wrongful conviction

When a girl's body was found in a mine shaft near Coxton, Kentucky, in September 1925, the authorities claimed it was that of fourteen-year-old Mary Vickery, who had disappeared the previous August 23. In March 1926, Condy Dabney, a married father of two and former miner who had forsaken that occupation to become a cab driver shortly before Mary disappeared, was indicted for her murder.

The charges stemmed from allegations made by another girl, Marie Jackson, who came forward six months after the crime, claiming to have been an eyewitness to the murder. The morning of the purported crime, Marie said she and Mary hailed Dabney's cab. The three went to a restaurant and, a little later, to a secluded area where Dabney made sexual advances toward Mary. When Mary protested, Dabney struck her with a stick and she fell to the ground. Marie tried to hide, but Dabney found her. He forced her to accompany him to the mine, where they dumped Mary's body. Marie had not come forward earlier, she said, because Dabney threatened to burn her at the stake, or to have a friend do that, if she told anyone about the crime.

The prosecution case was not strong. At Dabney's trial, which occurred less than a month after his indictment, five witnesses substantially contradicted Marie regarding the time of the alleged crime. Marie claimed to have been with Mary and Dabney from 7 a.m. until dark, but three friends of Mary's claimed to have been with her during the afternoon. The friends said a man named William Middleton had given them and Mary a ride that afternoon, and their account was corroborated by the mother of two of the girls and by Middleton.

The identification of the body also was dubious. It was too badly decomposed for anyone to identify it by appearance, and the defense insisted that the decomposition was too extensive for the body to be that of someone who had been dead only a little more than a month. A ring and stocking that the prosecution claimed had been found with the body were identified as Mary's by her father, but his testimony was impeached because he did not attend the funeral. On cross examination, he acknowledged that, after viewing the body, he had not been "perfectly sure" it was his daughter's. Moreover, although the father claimed the hair matched Mary's hair, which was light, two other witnesses who had seen the body claimed the hair was dark. Exhumation could have resolved the issue, but that apparently was not suggested.

To bolster the weak prosecution case, a jailhouse informant was called to stand. His name was Claude Scott, who happened to be an acquaintance of Marie Jackson. Scott claimed that Dabney had offered him $15 to falsely testify that Marie had admitted concocting the murder tale. It was not established whether the prosecution rewarded Scott for his testimony. Dabney took the stand in his own defense. He said he had no recollection of ever having had Mary Vickery in his cab, although Marie Jackson had been a customer on several occasions.

Despite the conflicting evidence, the jury convicted Dabney on March 31, 1926, and the judge sentenced him to life at hard labor. Just a few days short of a year later, while Dabney's appeal was pending, a police officer in Williamsburg, Kentucky, some 85 miles west of Coxton, happened to notice the name Mary Vickery on a hotel register. Because the name seemed familiar, he spoke with her, and soon learned that she was the person Dabney had been convicted of killing. She said she had run away the year before because she wasn?t getting along with her stepmother. Mary said she did not even know Marie Jackson, who admitted she had concocted the story to collect a $500 reward posted by Mary's father. Marie was convicted of perjury on March 27, 1927. The body from the mine apparently was never identified.

— Rob Warden