Nelson Green and Charles Steilow's confessions were false, and so was the prosecution's ballistics evidence
Nelson I. Green and Charles F. Stielow were convicted of murdering their well-to-do neighbor, Charles B. Phelps, and Phelps's housekeeper, Marjorie Wilcott, on March 12, 1915, near the town of Shelby, in Orleans County, New York. Green was sentenced to life, and Steilow to death.
The convictions rested primarily on purported confessions that Green and Steilow's lawyers claimed at trial had been extracted by third-degree methods, but the officials involved - two detectives and the sheriff and undersheriff of Orleans County - denied any impropriety.
What hope the defendants might have had for acquittal evaporated when the prosecution presented a ballistics expert who testified that the victims died of bullets fired from a .22-caliber pistol found in Stielow's home.
The convictions were affirmed by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, which found, "From an examination of the record, it is inconceivable that the jury could have rendered any other verdict." People v. Stielow, 160 N.Y.S. 555 (1916).
Newspaper investigates case
On death row at Sing Sing, Stielow persisted in his innocence claim and, after a while, persuaded a deputy warden, Spencer Miller Jr., that the claim had merit. Miller interested several philanthropic groups in the case. The prominence of the groups, in addition to Miller's support for Stielow, piqued the interest of Louis Seibold, a reporter for the New York World.
At Seibold's behest, the World hired a Buffalo detective, Thomas O'Grady, who soon ascertained that Stielow and Green were illiterate. O'Grady also observed that the so-called confessions, which the defendants had refused to sign but which purported to be in their own words, included language beyond their comprehension. Moreover, O'Grady discovered that two detectives who claimed to have obtained the confessions had been retained by Orleans County on a contingency basis: They would be paid, only if they solved the crime.
Execution stayed, reinstated, and stayed again
Buoyed by O'Grady's findings, as presented by the World, the philanthropic groups hired a legal team to represent the condemned man. The lawyers' first, essential step was to request a stay of execution from Governor Charles S. Whitman to permit time for filing a motion for a new trial based on the new evidence. On April 8, 1916, the eve of Stielow's date with the electric chair, Whitman obliged.
Granting the stay was a courageous act, which resulted in a backlash that threatened the governor's political future and produced a climate in Orleans County in which politics weighed against an elected local judge granting relief.
The motion was denied and Stielow's execution was rescheduled for the morning of July 29, when it came perilously close to proceeding. On the eve of the new date, Stielow's lawyers obtained a stay from a Supreme Court justice in Brooklyn to permit an appeal of the denial of the motion. One of the lawyers set out by car to deliver the stay order to Sing Sing, but the car broke down. Fortunately, the justice who signed the stay reached the prison by long-distance telephone - not a wholly reliable means of communication in those days - with less than an hour to spare. Had there been a technological failure of the sort that frequently resulted from storms, Stielow would have died that morning in the New York electric chair.
The killer confesses, but recants
While the appeal was pending, Seibold, the World reporter on the case, learned that an itinerant junk dealer, Erwin King, one of two men arrested for robbing a storekeeper in Cattaraugus County, had confessed that he and his accomplice in that crime, Clarence F. O'Connell, had committed the Phelps-Wilcott murders. King soon was taken to Orleans County, where, in custody of the very officials who claimed Stielow and Green had confessed, he recanted.
Meanwhile, O'Connell, who already had been sentenced for the Cattaraugus County robbery and was in the state penitentiary at Auburn, insisted he had nothing to do with the crime. Stielow's lawyers supplemented the record with affidavits of persons who placed O'Connell and King in the vicinity of the Phelps-Wolcott crime shortly after it occurred, but the Court of Appeals denied relief, setting the execution for December 11, 1916. On December 3, Governor Whitman again intervened, this time commuting Stielow's sentence to life in prison.
King, meanwhile, was returned to Cattaraugus County to wait disposition of the case against him stemming from the robbery of the shopkeeper. O'Grady, the detective retained by the World, arranged to have an associate placed in jail with King. The associate, Thomas Fogarty, promptly gained King's confidence, and King asked Fogarty to smuggle four letters out of the jail and mail them for him. Fogarty, of course, took them to O'Grady and Siebold.
One of the letters was to the proprietor of an Orleans County tavern beseeching him to keep quiet if anyone should inquire about a wallet King and O'Connell had left at the tavern the night of the Phelps-Wilcott murders. Although the letter did not say so directly, read in the context of the other three letters, it plainly indicated that the wallet had been taken from Phelps. Two of the other letters were to friends of King's, asking them to approach the tavern keeper on with the same request. The remaining letter was to someone to whom King apparently had made a damning admission. "No one knows but you," said this letter, "and you can save me from the chair."
Governor orders reinvestigation
The World withheld publication of the letters at the time, no doubt out of concern that disclosure might hamper further efforts to exonerate Stielow and Green. However, Siebold shared the letters with Governor Whitman, who after personally interviewing King and O'Connell, requested an independent reinvestigation of the case.
The Legislature appropriated $25,000 for the investigation on January 31, 1917, whereupon Whitman appointed a special deputy attorney general, George H. Bond, to lead it. In the ensuing months, Bond made two startling discoveries. The first was that the confessions had been fabricated - not extracted by the third-degree, as Stielow and Green's counsel had argued at trial.
Officials caught in lies
Unbeknownst to the defendants and defense counsel, the conversations during which the confessions were alleged to have occurred had been recorded by a dictograph machine. Bond obtained the recordings, which established conclusively that neither man in fact had confessed. The detectives, sheriff, and undersheriff obviously had lied under oath.
The second discovery was that the prosecution-sponsored ballistics testimony also had been perjury. A new ballistics analysis arranged by Bond established that the fatal bullets could not - as the state expert had claimed at the trial - have come from the pistol found in Stielow's home.
Pardons but not justice
Based on the definitive evidence developed by Bond, Whitman unconditionally pardoned Green and Stielow, who were released on May 9, 1918.
There was no demand - from either the press or the legal profession - for punishing the officials whose perjury had sent one innocent man to prison and another to death row. The New York Times headline, in its Sunday edition of May 12, 1918, seems to have exemplified the prevailing attitude. "Strange Case of Charles F. Stielow," said the headline, as if the framing of two innocent men - and the bringing of one within an hour of death in the electric chair - were nothing more than a curiosity worthy, perhaps, of "Ripley's Believe It or Not."
Green and Steilow received no compensation for their wrongful convictions, and Erwin King - the probable killer of Charles Phelps and Marjorie Wilcott was not charged with the crime.
— Rob Warden