Guilty or Innocent?
By Ken Verdoia
It is easy to see how the conflict over guilt and innocence can continue more than eighty years after the trial. And it is easy to understand the adamance of those who believe an execution should not have moved forward in such an arena of confusion and contradiction.
There is an obvious absence of black-and-white evidence in the case of Joe Hill. There was no conclusive eyewitness, no telling piece of material evidence. The two critical pieces of trial evidence that led to his conviction were his unexplained gunshot wound, and witnesses who described a physical similarity between Hill and a man who entered the Morrison store at the time of the shooting.
Using the gunshot wound as evidence against Hill is troublesome for several reasons. First, there still is some doubt that a gun was actually fired by the Morrison's inside their store. Second, if the gun was fired, why was the bullet never found. . .either in the store, or in Hill, if he was the gunman? The eyewitnesses who testified at trial that Hill looked a lot like one of the gunmen were unable to make a similar identification to police when Hill was first arrested or at his preliminary hearing. The testimony noticeably "improves" over time. Also, the police identification of Frank Z. Wilson, a recently released prison inmate, as the prime suspect in the Morrison murder is dropped without comment after Hill's arrest. Since Wilson went on a rampage of crime in other states, it seems odd that authorities would make no effort to pursue the theory of his role in the Morrison killings.
Given literally a dozen opportunities to establish an alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the Morrison murders and the events that caused his gunshot wound, Hill refuses to cooperate. He talks vaguely about being shot in an argument over a woman, but refuses to identify the woman or the man who allegedly shot him. No woman ever steps forward to identify herself as the subject of the triangular showdown. No man ever confesses to having used his gun to wound Joe Hill. Human nature would seem to indicate that with a life in the balance, at least one of the three would break their silence and corroborate Hill's story with names and places. It never happened.
Additionally, when Hill is being treated for his wound by Dr. Frank McHugh on the night of the Morrison murders, a handgun falls from Hill's pocket. While being driven home by a friend of McHugh, Hill insists on stopping along a desolate stretch of road, where he throws the gun deep into a field. Again, if Hill was simply a victim, his possession of a handgun would not appear to be a problem worthy of the solution he chooses. Finally, Hill does practically everything he can during the course of his murder trial to undermine the efforts of his young, inexperienced, but well-intentioned, defense attorneys. While its true that his courtroom outburst aimed at firing his attorneys and his refusal to testify were either arguably or certainly within his rights, they contributed to a subjective environment that worked against any reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury concerning Hill's guilt. Again, it seems that the reasonable, innocent man would do anything in his power to refute the charges and evidence alleging his guilt. Hill does not.