An erroneous eyewitness identification sent Andrew Toth to prison for 20 years
Andrew Toth was sentenced to death on April 8, 1891, for a murder that occurred during a riot at Andrew Carnegie's Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the previous New Year's Day.
Toth had nothing to do with the crime. It had been committed by a man with the same last name — Steve Toth — who fled the country after the riot, leaving so hurriedly that he didn't bother to pick up his belongings at the rooming house where he had been staying. Steve Toth and Andrew Toth were not related and bore little resemblance to one another.
Riot at the mill
The riot occurred when some 200 striking workers of Hungarian dissent, seething with anger that strikebreakers of mostly Irish descent were stoking the furnaces on the holiday, marched on the mill with ax handles, shovels, and other makeshift weapons. Sixteen strikebreakers were injured, three fatally. The Allegheny County sheriff deputized 200 men, who arrested 54 Hungarians — among whom was Andrew Toth.
Toth was a devout Christian who had immigrated five years earlier, planning to stay only as long as necessary to save enough to buy a home for his wife and four sons in the Hungarian town of Abanj. At the time of the riot, Toth's eagerly anticipated departure had been only weeks away. He would long lament that peer pressure prompted him reluctantly to join the mob at the mill.
Charges and trial
Six days after the riot, Toth and two other Hungarians, Michael Sabol, George S. Rusnok, were charged with first-degree murder in connection with one of the riot deaths — that of an Irish furnace boss named Michael Quinn. When the defendants went on trial in the Court of Oyer and Terminer of Allegheny County the following month, the sole evidence against Toth was the testimony of one purported eyewitness of Irish dissent, Peter Mullin. Two other eyewitnesses presented by the prosecution did not implicate Toth, attributing the Quinn beating to Sabol and Rusnok.
Mullin's testimony was dubious for two reasons: First, he had told authorities initially that "Steve Toth" had administered the fatal beating with Sabol and Rusnok. Second, he claimed the beating occurred near Furnace C, while the other principal prosecution witnesses — the two who did not implicate Toth — said it occurred 500 feet away near Furnace A.
The Furnace A scenario seemed more logical, since that is where Quinn had fallen. It was not possible that either Mullin or the other eyewitnesses simply erred concerning the location of the beating because, from their respective vantage points, Mullin could not have seen what happened at Furnace A and the others could not have seen what happened at Furnace C.
Nor was it plausible that Quinn could have survived the severe attack Mullin described at Furnace C to suffer a second savage attack at Furnace A. Before he died, Quinn provided an account of what happened. Although he was not specific about the location of the beating, he said nothing to suggest that he had been attacked twice.
Thus, especially in light of the animosity that the labor strife had engendered between the Irish and the Hungarians, it seems more likely that Mullin lied than that he made an honest mistake.
Verdict, appeal, and commutation
Despite the conflicting testimony, the jury found all three defendants guilty and Judge Edwin H. Stowe sentenced them "to be hanged by the neck until you be dead" at a time and location to be designated by the governor of Pennsylvania.
Three months later, on June 5, 1891, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court summarily affirmed the convictions and death sentences with an opinion that merely summarized the issues raised in the condemned men's pleadings and rejected each with one word: "Refused." Commonwealth v. Toth, 145 Pa. 308 (1891).
However, a number of prominent persons — including most notably the Thomson mill's owner, Andrew Carnegie, and manager, Charles M. Schwab — were troubled by the outcome of the case. At the behest of the concerned citizens, Governor Robert Emory Pattison commuted the sentences to life in prison on February 25, 1892.
For almost 19 years after the commutation, Toth was a model prisoner at Pennsylvania's Western Penitentiary, where he prayed with such frequency that he came to be called "Praying Andy."
In December 1910 it seemed that his prayers were answered, when in Hungary Steve Toth — apparently believing he was near death from typhoid fever — asked to speak to a judicial authority. When a judge was brought to his bedside, the man who had hastily fled Braddock after the riot confessed that had inflicted the fatal blows upon Quinn.
The statement implicated George Rusnok in the beating, but appeared to absolve Michael Sabol, as well as Andrew Toth, of involvement. By this time, however, it was too late to help Sabol. Both he and Rusnok had died in prison years before.
Steve Toth's confession was presented to the Pennsylvania Pardon Board. After a hearing at which the questionable evidence used at the 1892 trial was dispassionately re-examined for the first time, the board concluded that Andrew Toth was indeed an innocent man. On March 17, 1911, Governor John Kinley Tener granted a full pardon, and within hours Toth walked out of the penitentiary.
Meanwhile, Steve Toth had something of a miraculous recovery, prompting demands that he be returned to Allegheny County and tried for murder. Within weeks, however, the notion was rendered moot when he suffered a fatal relapse.
The wife whom Andrew Toth had last seen a quarter of a century earlier awaited him in Hungary, but he had no funds for passage — a circumstance that prompted Andrew Carnegie to provide a pension — $40 a month — enabling Toth to go home.
The case gave rise to a movement led by, among others, John Henry Wigmore, the distinguished dean of the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, to establish systems of automatic indemnification for the wrongfully convicted. To Wigmore, a constitutional principle was involved — that compensation should be made for property taken by the state.
There was no more precious property, Wigmore reasoned, than freedom.
"To deprive a man of liberty, put him to heavy expense in defending himself, and to cut off his power to earn a living — these are sacrifices which the state imposes on him for the public purpose of punishing crime." Wigmore explained in a 1913 editorial in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. "And when it is found that he incurred these sacrifices through no fault of his own, that he was innocent, then should not the state at least compensate him, so far as money can do so?"
The indemnification movement was not overwhelmingly successful, however. It was not until three decades after the Toth exoneration that California, in 1941, became the first state to enact legislation to compensate the wrongfully convicted. Wisconsin followed in 1943, Illinois in 1945, North Carolina in 1947, and 10 other states — Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia — by the end of the Twentieth Century.
— Rob Warden