Dying Declarations ... the Trials of Stanley Puryear

I had thought that ax murders went out of fashion after Lizzie Borden's 1893 parricides in Massachusetts. But they surfaced again in Memphis around 4:30 a.m. on Monday, May 2, 1932. At 1300 Ridgeway (near the intersection of present day Mississippi Boulevard and South Parkway), Stanley Puryear axed wife Aurelia and daughter Aurelia Zenia (age 8). Then he shotgunned a black man named Will Jamison. He told police that Jamison murdered the first two victims.

What was Puryear's motive? He had been committing adultery with Mary Sunshine Walker. She told him to get a divorce or she would leave him for another man. Aurelia Cucinotta Puryear was a devout Catholic who would never have consented to divorce.

Her murder was the macabre marriage dissolution. Little Aurelia Zenia slept in her mother's bedroom, so she also had to be slaughtered. Fortunately, son Porter (age 11) slept in the back bedroom with his father and escaped harm. Unfortunately, he always believed in the murderer's innocence.

Will Jamison made a dying declaration to police officers. He denied Puryear's accusation that he was the ax wielder. He declared the true story was that Puryear fetched him on Beale Street with an offer to pay for help carrying Prohibition liquor from the Ridgeway attic. He was left in the car (while Puryear killed wife and daughter), then Puryear shot him twice with a 12-gauge shotgun. This dying declaration was diametrically opposite from the story that Puryear was soon to tell from the witness stand.

Tennessee tried Stanley Allen Puryear four times. First he was tried for the murder of Will Jamison. The jury returned a verdict of acquittal on Oct. 19, 1932. Second he was tried for the murder of wife Aurelia. The jury could not agree and the judge declared a mistrial on Nov. 29, 1933.

The third trial is of most interest to me because I was able to obtain the bill of exceptions (today the transcript of evidence) from Ms. Darla Brock at the State Library and Archives. Again prosecuted for wife murder, Stanley Puryear stood trial Nov. 19-26, 1934. Sunshine Walker, the accused, his son and many others testified for the defense. But the jury returned a verdict of second degree murder.

Our Supreme Court reversed on April 4, 1936. Although the full opinion has "gone missing" (as the illiterati say and write), I found excerpts in a newspaper. Special Justice Davis wrote about Will Jamison's dying declaration:

A reading of the record convinces us that the police officers and the assistant attorney general developed the case upon the theory of [Will Jamison's] statements. The statements made by [Jamison] were not evidence as to their truth, and nothing he said carried any probative weight in the trial of Puryear for the murder of his wife.

The court was applying the common law hearsay exception for dying declarations, now embodied in Tennessee Rule of Evidence 804(b)(2):

The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule if the declarant is unavailable as a witness:

* * *

In a prosecution for homicide, a statement made by the victim while believing that the declarant's death was imminent and concerning the cause or circumstances of what the declarant believed to be impending death.

As the comment explains: "The trial must be for the homicide of the declarant." The third trial was for the homicide of victim Aurelia Puryear, not for the homicide of victim Will Jamison, the declarant.

The federal exception for dying declarations does not contain this Tennessee limitation. Should our version be amended to allow admissibility in a murder prosecution for a victim other than the declarant? Perhaps so. After all, the trustworthiness of this hearsay exception is grounded in the historical belief that a person would not tell a lie in the fast lane to the hereafter. If Will Jamison's dying words were true in the trial for his murder, they were no less true in the trial for Aurelia Puryear's murder.

The State returned to the courtroom a fourth time. On June 28, 1937, 12 jurors convicted Stanley Puryear of second degree murder and set the sentence at 20 years. The Supreme Court affirmed in an opinion by Justice Cook reported at 174 Tenn. 291, 125 S.W.2d 138 (March 4, 1939). Because of a technicality under the arcane terms of court statutes of the day, the bill of exceptions was untimely filed and a motion to strike was granted. But the court nonetheless read the transcript:

We have examined all of the evidence and, although it raises some doubt of the defendant's guilt, it could not be found that the evidence which is conflicting upon all issues preponderates against the verdict.

Stanley Puryear reported to the penitentiary in Nashville on April 21, 1939. He died there of a heart ailment at age 47 on Nov. 2, 1941.

Will Jamison's remains lie at New Park Cemetery in South Memphis. Records do not exist prior to the 1960s. Consequently I cannot ascertain the location of his grave or whether it has a tombstone.

A telephone call to Memorial Park Cemetery in East Memphis on Poplar at Interstate 240 produced burial records and maps. In Section H of the cemetery are four markers, one each for: Aurelia C. Puryear (d. May 2, 1932), Aurelia Z. Puryear (d. May 2, 1932), Stanley A. Puryear (d. November 2, 1941), and Porter Puryear (d. July 19, 2003). I dare not speculate how that arrangement got worked out in heaven or purgatory or hell.


Donald F. Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, Bickers, and Tillman LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, Tennessee Judicial Conference, and UT College of Law. He is reporter to the Supreme Court Advisory Commission on Rules of Practice and Procedure.