Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Justice Trembling in the Balance

Part 2 of 4: Lieutenant Governor Latta Falls From a Train

An April 1878 meeting of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, reported The New York Times months later, resulted in a unanimous decision to commute the death sentence of Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) leader John Kehoe to imprisonment for life.

The Times did not report where it received this information. When the board’s decision came down that April, it was kept well-hidden from the newspapers.

Pennsylvania’s four-man board, newly constructed in 1874, consisted of four appointees: the commonwealth’s secretary, its attorney general, its secretary of internal affairs and its lieutenant governor.

In April 1878 all four of those officers, reported The New York Times eight months later, had voted in favor of Kehoe’s request for commutation of his death sentence.

That ring of support unraveled before it could again rule on Kehoe’s behalf.


By September 1878 the Machiavellian legal arena that had secured the signed death warrants for 16 AOH defendants was well in place. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court had denied all requests for relief for these Irish Catholic defendants. Those too poor to have their evidence printed for that court’s review simply went to the gallows without even the appearance of effective due process of law.

By fall 1878 the issue of John Kehoe’s request for commutation had become a political football. This was an election year.

But Franklin Gowen had matters well in hand for the pardon board’s September 1878 hearing. He knew he could rely on the support of William McCandless, secretary of internal affairs. And Matthew Quay had taken a leave of absence from his office of secretary for the commonwealth. Quay’s replacement, John Linn, could also be relied upon to vote against Kehoe’s request.

That left Attorney General Lear and Lieutenant Governor Latta. Both these men showed a stubborn insistence on voting in Kehoe’s favor. But if the board deadlocked again in a two-two tie, that would favor the commonwealth, not the defendant.


The board met on September 4 to reconsider Kehoe’s case. “Several hours were consumed in deliberation,” reported a Harrisburg paper, “when the board decided to refuse to recommend the commutation of his death sentence to imprisonment for life.” As expected, both Latta and Lear voted in Kehoe’s favor.

Latta then boarded a train for his home in Greensburg.

“A rather serious accident befell Hon. John Latta, Lieut. Governor … on Wednesday night, on his return from Harrisburg, where he was attending the meeting of the Board of Pardons,” reported a Pittsburgh paper. “[I]n stepping off the train … he was thrown down with such violence as to fracture his right arm above the elbow.”

“Lieut. Gov. Latta was very seriously injured at Greensburg last night,” reported a Bloomsburg paper. “He sustained a dislocation of the shoulder and is suffering from concussion of the brain. Considerable anxiety is felt at his recovery.”

Latta’s unfortunate accident did not end his efforts on John Kehoe’s behalf. Latta did recover from his injury. And he continued to side with Kehoe in ongoing pardon board deliberations.


Coming December 1 - Part 3 of 4: The Witness is Worthy of Credit

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