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The Arsenic Murder Trials of Katie Browder Stricklin
England had Mary Ann Cotton (1832-1873), whose arsenic victims included three husbands plus step-children and her own children. She was tried and hanged.
New England had Amy Archer (1873?-1962), who dispatched with arsenic “inmates” and a couple of husbands at her rooming house (made infamous in “Arsenic and Old Lace”). After a trial and reversal and guilty plea she was sent to an asylum.
And Tennessee had Katie Browder Stricklin (1938-1995). Who was she, what did she do, and what happened to her?
Katie LaVerne Browder was born on July 27, 1938. She graduated from Madison County High School in Jackson, from Peabody College in Nashville, and earned a master’s degree at Memphis University. She taught high school students in Madison and surrounding counties.
Katie married Ray Stricklin. They had no children. Katie’s father died in 1965, and her mother died in 1969. She was their only child.
On Sunday, May 30, 1971, at Savannah in Hardin County, Katie and Ray visited his parents William and Mollie Stricklin for a midday dinner. Mollie prepared the meal; Katie served tea. Later that day Katie’s in-laws were afflicted with vomiting and diarrhea. The local hospital admitted William but released Mollie. By Wednesday William was much improved. Katie served him Coca-Cola. He died around 7:30 Thursday morning.
After the funeral Katie made a bowl of Jell-O and placed it in Mollie’s refrigerator. The widow ate it on Monday morning, June 7, and became so sick that she had to be taken to Baptist Hospital in Memphis. Luckily she survived. But analyses of her urine and the Jell-O revealed arsenic.
The recently buried William Stricklin was exhumed. His corpse was filled with copious quantities of arsenic.
Katie made two confessions. The first occurred when a doctor announced that Mollie’s urine contained arsenic. Katie stated: “If it was in the Jell-O I am guilty.”
The second was when Katie was served with arrest warrants for crimes against her parents-in-law. Given the recently born Miranda (1966) warnings she related:
a. “I might have done this thing, but I don’t remember doing it.”
b. “I probably did this, but I’m puzzled as to what and where I obtained anything to do it with.”
c. “I don’t know what I used if I used anything.”
d. “I must have done all of this.”
What about Katie’s long dead parents, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Browder? They also were dug up. Guess what? These deceased had lethal amounts of arsenic.
Katie Browder Stricklin was tried for three murders and one attempted murder. The results were:
a. Murder of father-in-law = conviction and sentence of 20 years and one day in prison.
b. Attempted murder of mother-in-law = acquittal.
c. Murder of father = acquittal.
d. Murder of mother = conviction on retrial after hung jury and sentence of life in prison.
The only reported opinion concerns affirmance of Katie’s conviction for poisoning father-in-law William Stricklin. See Stricklin v. State, 497 S.W.2d 755 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1973). Let’s examine the legal issues raised on appeal.
Was the corpus delicti proved? Yes. It’s true that there was no proof of animosity or motive, but there need not be. The contaminated tea, Coca-Cola, and Jell-O were proof of the body of the crime. No one saw Katie add arsenic to the mix; of course not, because stealth was necessary.
Was the rule of sequestration violated? No. Some prosecution witnesses were absent from the courtroom when the trial commenced. The judge’s admonition at the end of each witness’s testimony not to discuss the case sufficed. (I have some concern that late arrivals may have heard testimony of others before taking the stand, but the opinion is silent.)
Did proof of the defendant’s poisoning of mother-in-law Mollie Stricklin violate the principle excluding evidence of other crimes to prove character and conforming conduct? No. That crime was relevant on noncharacter issues of common scheme or plan, absence of accident or mistake, guilty knowledge, and identity of the poisoner. And the evidence was “clear and convincing” despite Katie’s later acquittal for attempting to kill Mollie, because “the test is whether at the time of admission it is competent.”
It looked as though Katie Browder Stricklin would spend the remainder of her life in prison. But along came Felon Blanton. In 1979 he commuted her first degree murder conviction and life sentence for the killing of her mother to second degree. She was released on parole July 4, 1981. By then she and Ray had divorced; she dropped her married surname and reverted to her maiden name of Browder.
After a brief stint as a beauty operator at a friend’s shop in South Carolina, Katie ended up in Knoxville. She worked at Clayton Homes, a company owned by her cousin, and resided in the west part of town.
Death from leukemia ensued on March 1, 1995, at age 56. Katie LaVerne Browder is buried at Highland Memorial Cemetery. Her obituary included these words: “Preceded in death by parents.”
DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, and the Tennessee Judicial Conference.