What follows is the conclusion of the murder story that was begun here last week, ending with testimony from several witnesses, including the defendant. This picks up in the trial’s final phase.
During closing statements, defense attorney Jeremiah K. Long pleaded for his client’s life: “The charge of murder in the first degree is a fearful one. To condemn this aged man to death will be a fearful responsibility for every individual juror. The facts did not warrant a conclusion of deliberate killing. The ends of justice might be satisfied by the infliction of a lighter penalty than death…. None of the circumstances showed that the crime was premeditated.
“Gentlemen of the jury, you cannot ‘guess’ this old man to death. You cannot speculate about this serious problem, but you must believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that the shooting was done deliberately and with the intention of causing Wesson’s death before you can return a verdict of murder in the first degree…. The law says the prosecution must remove all doubts. If you cannot determine him guilty of murder in the first degree beyond a shadow of a doubt, you must render a verdict for the lesser degree….
“This old man, penniless and almost alone in the world, has reached almost the three score and ten years allotted to mankind, and upon you rests the responsibility of doing his judicial murder [death sentence]. I conjure you, in the name of all that is just and as you reverence the Maker of all mankind, to render a verdict in accordance with justice and mercy.”
It was a well-stated, fervent effort to play on the conscience of each and every jury member, but his arguments had little to no evidentiary support.
District Attorney John P. Kelly countered effectively with a reference to the murder weapon, which, he said, was “put into the prisoner’s pocket by his own hand. Does not this fact show premeditation?” Noting that age was not a factor in determining guilt, he called it “as plain a case of murder as had ever been put before a jury.”
In less than four hours, the twelve men empaneled to decide Jones’s fate agreed, returning a verdict of guilty. Within days, he was sentenced to die in Dannemora’s electric chair during the week of March 13.
Three weeks later, in late February, a large group of Welsh citizens in New York City organized a petition seeking a commutation from the governor on behalf of Jones. The condemned man, they said, committed the crime only after Wesson egged him on with insults and taunts, and the old man’s mind was still somewhat affected by recent sunstroke.
Although the killer’s name was common, it seemed an odd coincidence that the man presiding over the Welsh meeting was also called Thomas Jones. His effort was soon joined by Welsh groups from Troy and Utica, plus Granville and Middle Granville in Washington County. Their combined stated purpose was “rescuing the first Welshman ever under sentence of death in this state.”
Governor Roswell Flower agreed to meet with the group on March 1, barely two weeks before the scheduled execution. Twenty men, many of them prominent citizens, attended the meeting, speaking on behalf of “an honest, industrious citizen who had never before been accused of a crime,” and claiming that Wesson was killed without premeditation. Defense attorney Long added that circulating a petition for clemency was done at the suggestion of Judge Alton Parker—the man who had sentenced Jones to die.
Benjamin Lewis of the Utica contingent admitted that his members didn’t know Jones personally, but had decided to defend a fellow countryman, which he proceeded to do with an unusual plea.
“Today is St. David’s Day, celebrated by Welshmen all over the world. In the olden time, it was the custom in Wales to liberate upon this day some prisoner under sentence. We may be superstitious, but we cannot help feeling that it is an auspicious day for us to come before you, your excellency, pleading for this man’s life.”
Carrying considerable weight was the support of Senator Henry Coggeshall, who cited three main factors to consider. Was the element of premeditation present in the crime? Should a man of such extreme age be condemned to die? Would justice truly be served if Jones were executed? He added that neither the judge nor the district attorney involved in the case opposed commutation.
A week before Jones was to be electrocuted, Governor Flower, citing the recommendation of Judge Parker, commuted his sentence to “the term of his natural life” in Clinton Prison. On March 12, when his attorney received confirmation from the warden that the commutation papers had arrived, Jones was taken north by train to Dannemora. Before leaving, he told an interviewer:
“My lawyer has brought me back from the grave. I am glad to know that I am going to live, although my sentence is for life. I have had very good friends, and they did a great deal for me. My killing Wesson was an unfortunate thing for both of us. How that young man must have angered me to do what they say I did! I only drank three glasses of beer before the trouble, but I can’t remember doing the shooting.”
(This story was excerpted from the author’s 2017 book, Dannemora’s Death House: The Crimes and Fates of 41 Killers Sentenced to Die in Clinton Prison’s Electric Chair.)
Photos: Headline, New York Herald (1892); Headline, Buffalo Evening News (1893)