Police did not know they had arrested a significant figure in a radical labor movement. Newspaper coverage of the arrest demonstrated no interest in Joseph Hillstrom's association with the Industrial Workers of the World. In fact, there was no public connection of the murder suspect to the Wobblies until the eve of his trial. Only then was it noted in local papers that Hillstrom was, in fact, Joe Hill, a radical who had something of a following due to his songs and poetry.
Pleading poverty, Hill acted as his own attorney during a preliminary hearing. Hill offered little resistence as the prosecution produced a dozen witnesses who testified to the circumstantial case against Hill. The prosecution had discarded all of the early police theories about motive for the crimes. Rather than argue revenge against Morrison, the prosecution decided to forego motive almost entirely. Instead they spoke in vague terms of a robbery gone bad. Hill was bound over for trial, held without bail, and informed that the state would seek the death penalty against him.
For his trial, Hill accepted the offer of two young Salt Lake City attorneys to represent him free of charge. Long before a public defenders office existed to provide legal representation for the poor, young attorneys often volunteered to defend the poor in high-profile cases in the hopes of advancing their careers. In the case of Joseph Hillstrom, the defendant and his attorneys soon turned into courtroom combatants.
Midway through the prosecution's case, Hill dramatically announced he was firing his attorneys because of his belief that they were, in fact, partners with the District Attorney in railroading him for a crime he did not commit. Judge Morris Ritchie refused to excuse the two young attorneys, allowing Hill to take a more active role in his defense. The split was never reconciled, and Hill virtually refused to have anything to do with the trial.
The prosecution's case boiled down to a series of witnesses, including Merlin Morrison, who testified that Hill bore varying degrees of similarity to one of the gunmen seen entering the Morrison store on January 10, 1914. At least one witness identified the scars on Hill's face as similar to scars on one of the gunment. In addition, the testimony of Dr. McHugh challenged the jury to conclude that Hill's gunshot wound was more than mere coincidence.
Throughout the trial, it had been assumed that Hill would take the stand in his own defense, describe the circumstances of his gunshot wound, and perhaps even name the woman he claimed was the reason for his injury. Even the prosecution stated that Hill had to seize the opportunity afforded in the trial to prove his innocence.
In the face of all the expectations, Hill refused to testify.
Some speculated that his was the action of a man of honor who would not dare harm the reputation of a reportedly married woman caught in an embarrassing tryst that led to the shooting. Others speculated that Hill was advised by I.W.W. legal advisors not to testify. The prosecution said Hill did not testify because his alibi would not hold up under scrutiny. The defense attorneys only knew that Hill wouldn't talk in court.
Rather than open the door to acquittal, the move sealed Hill's fate. The jury deliberated only a few hours before returning a guilty verdict. Under Utah law Hill was given the option of either being shot to death, or hung at the gallows for his crime.
"I'll take the shooting," Hill told the judge. "I've been shot a couple times before, and I think I can take it."