Jesse Lucas

Perjury for the prosecution sent Jesse Lucas to prison for 23 years for a murder he did not commit

Margaret and Jesse Lucas — mother and son — were convicted by a jury in 1909 of a murder that occurred four years earlier near Mt. Carmel, Illinois. The convictions rested on conflicting testimony from two purported eyewitnesses and two other witnesses who claimed to have heard the defendants talking about how they had committed the crime.

The victim, Clyde Showalter, apparently had been intoxicated the afternoon of November 19, 1905, when last seen alive. A badly decomposed body presumed to be his was found near Patoka Creek, a Wabash River tributary, seven months later. A coroner's inquest failed to determine the cause of death, leaving uncertainty about whether the death had involved foul play or been accidental.

Conflicting testimony

Nothing happened in the case until 1908 when a young felon named Richard Conrad came forward to claim that he had seen Jesse Lucas kill Showalter with "a bludgeon similar to a baseball bat" and then drag the body toward Patoka Creek. In exchange for Conrad's testimony, Wabash County State's Attorney H. M. Phipps arranged for his release from prison — to which he recently been sentenced for raping a 13-year-old girl.

The other purported eyewitness was a prostitute, Oma Johnson, who had been arrested at Conrad's behest and held as a material witness until she too agreed to testify against the Lucases. Although Conrad had testified that Jesse Lucas alone had committed the crime, Johnson claimed that Margaret Lucas had been present when her son committed the murder and then helped him take the body to the creek.

Neither version squared with the testimony of the other key prosecution witnesses, Myrtle Mercer and Ruth Henson, who apparently were prostitutes and, consequently, susceptible to official pressure to cooperate. Mercer and Henson claimed they had heard the Lucases make admissions after the fact, indicating that they together had killed Showalter.

A bizarre indictment

Prosecutor Phipps apparently could not decide what the defendants' respective roles in the crime had been. The grand jury indictment he obtained was bizarrely self-contradictory: Count one alleged that Jesse Lucas inflicted the fatal wounds, while his mother — not present during the actual murder — "encouraged, aided, and abetted" the crime. Count two alleged that Margaret Lucas was present for the murder — but had not physically participated. Count three alleged that they jointly inflicted the mortal wounds.

At the trial, the Lucases testified that they had nothing to do with the alleged crime. The jury, however, chose to believe the scenario alleged in Count Three — and found both guilty. The trial judge granted a new trial for the mother, but denied a similar motion for the son, who was sentenced to life in prison. Phipps subsequently dismissed the charges against Margaret Lucas, but Jesse Lucas's conviction was affirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court. People v. Lucas, 244 Ill. 603 (1910).

A deathbed confession

Lucas languished in prison until 1932, when George Pond, a former Mt. Carmel resident on his death bed in Decker, Indiana, confided to a woman with whom he attended church that he had robbed and murdered Showalter 27 years earlier.

The woman, Anna Smith, transcribed Pond's dying words: "I killed Showalter. I hit him over the head with a hammer on the southern bridge at Mt. Carmel. I thought I would get over $1,400, but all I got was $50. I threw him in the river first and later took him over to Patoka Creek and buried him in a sand bar. Jesse Lucas is serving life for that murder, but I am the one who is guilty."

Smith took her notes to Mt. Carmel, where a volunteer attorney petitioned the Illinois Parole Board to release Lucas based on innocence. By this time, the witnesses who had claimed to have overheard Lucas and his mother talking about the crime were deceased, as was Margaret Lucas. Oma Smith, however, admitted in testimony before the Parole Board that she had lied at the trial. In truth, she said, she knew nothing of Showalter's murder, but had been given a choice of testifying against the Lucases or remaining in jail indefinitely. She chose to testify then, but now was apologetic.

"I'm sorry for what I did," she said. "I couldn't help it. I feared for my life, and I wanted to get out of jail." Lucas was released. No action was taken against anyone involved in framing him, and he received no compensation for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

— Rob Warden