Would the jury believe the testimony of a ghost?
December 12, 2014
THE JUDGE didn’t expect it.
The jury didn’t believe it.
The accused was mortified when he realized it.
The defense lawyers could have prevented it, but they were the cause of it.
A man was on trial for murder.
A lynch mob was wandering in the streets.
A young woman lay dead.
Her neck broken.
And the key witness was ready to tell what she had seen.
She was only one of two people in the room that night when a young woman had breathed her last.
The witness was the young woman.
The witness was dead.
And her ghost was on the witness stand.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Just take a look at the names.
The victim was Elva Zona Heaster.
The accused was Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue.
Everybody called him Edward.
It could only have happened in West Virgina.
The two were in love, Elva and Erasmus. He was new in town and somehow neglected to mention that he had been married twice before.
One suspicious death.
Erasmus was still on the streets, on the move, maybe even on the run, and adrift in Greenbrier County, West Virginia.
He was safe in West Virginia. Nobody came looking for anybody in West Virginia.
It was the no-man’s land of the guilty conscience.
A young boy on an errand found the body of Zona lying on the floor at the foot of her bed. He had never seen a dead person before. But, he reasoned, if anybody was ever dead, it must be Zona.
He ran to fetch the doctor, but by the time old Doc Knapp rode out to the cabin, Erasmus had already dressed the corpse with a high-necked dress that had a stiff collar, and he had placed a veil over her face.
The husband was torn with grief.
He cradled his wife’s head in his arms.
And, frankly, the good doctor felt sorry for him. He glanced over the body and gave his official ruling: Zona Heaster Shue had died of the “everlasting faint.”
It hadn’t been a faint. But it was certainly everlasting.
Zona’s mother, Mary Jane, simply told anyone who would listen to her that “the devil has killed her.” And she had no doubt who the devil was.
As soon as the wake ended, Mary Jane Heaster removed the sheet from the coffin and washed it.
The water turned red.
The sheet turned pink.
The stain could not be removed.
It’s a sign, said Mary Jane. Her daughter had been murdered, and, in her heart, she knew it. She prayed without ceasing for four weeks, desperately hoping that Zona would return to tell her what had happened on that deadly and dreadful night.
Zona did. That’s what her mother said.
Zona appeared first as bright light, gradually taking shape and form, and a strange chill swept across the room.
The ghost spoke clearly and audibly: My husband abused me, the ghost said. In a fit of rage, he attacked me.
He said had had not cooked any meat for dinner.
He broke my neck.
The mother stared at the ghost of her daughter. The spirit of Zona turned her head around until she was looking in the opposite direction.
Four nights the ghost came. Four nights and the story never changed.
Mary Jane Heaster went immediately to the prosecutor and asked him to look again into her daughter’s death. The devil did it, she said. The devil murdered my daughter.
Her words didn’t offer a lot of solid evidence, but the prosecutor decided to dig up Zona’s body and oversee a formal autopsy.
Erasmus complained. You have no respect for the dead, he said.
The prosecutor didn’t care.
The autopsy, which took place in a one-room schoolhouse, proved that Zona’s neck had indeed been broken. There were finger marks visible on her throat. She had been strangled. Her windpipe was crushed.
Old Erasmus was going to jail.
He didn’t mind. I’ll be acquitted, he said. No evidence, he said.
He was right. There was no evidence against him.
But a defense attorney, dead set on proving that Mary Jane was an unreliable witness and probably slightly touched in the head, drug it out of her that she had seen a ghost, that she had heard a ghost.
Mary Jane Heaster would be the laughing stock of Greenbrier County.
He was sure of it.
I did see the ghost, she said.
Who was it?
My dead daughter.
What did she say? he asked.
Mary Jane told him, word for word.
The attorney laughed again.
But the jury believed every word that the ghost had said.
The judge would have told the jury to disregard the story of a ghost. It was preposterous. But he couldn’t. The defense had opened that can of worms, and the defense would to live with the consequences.
Guilty, said the jury.
Erasmus was on his way to prison.
A historical marker stands in silent testimony where the ghost finally rests in peace. It says: Interred in nearby cemetery is Zona Heaster Shue. Her death in 1897 was presumed natural until her spirit appeared to her mother to describe how she was killed by her husband Edward. Autopsy on the exhumed body verified the apparition’s account. Edward, found guilty of murder, was sentenced to the state prison. Only known case in which testimony from a ghost helped convince a murderer.
A perfect crime.
A ghost had the final word.
You can’t make this stuff up.