The Trials of Carl Still - Articles

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Posted by: Donald Paine on Aug 27, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Sep 2009

Journal Name: September 2009 - Vol. 45, No. 9

On the night of Tuesday, May 3, 1910, two pistol shots were heard in Lonsdale, a community northwest of Knoxville. One fatally wounded Gilbert May, who died the next evening.

Gilbert May (age 27) had been dating Mamie Miles (age early 20s). A neighbor of Miss Miles, Carl Still (age late teens), had a crush on her. He was mad at May for "beating his time." He told the owner of a soft drink stand that "if May didn't quit talking about him, he was going to have trouble."

The trouble occurred as Gilbert May was escorting Mamie Miles to a Bible study meeting. Carl Still followed the couple up the hill on that pitch dark night and shot May in the back with a .38 calibre pistol. He then ran to the home of Mamie Milwee (age 17) and fetched her to attend the same meeting! Being told that May accused him, Still denied wrongdoing and departed. He was promptly arrested.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 4, a dying Gilbert May declared to Dr. Nash at Lincoln Memorial Hospital in Knoxville:

Q.       When did he shoot you?
A.       As I was opening the gate.
Q.       Had Carl Still ever threatened you?
A.       No, but he said: "If I cannot come to see her, you shall not."
Q.       Are you positive that Carl Still shot you last night?
A.       I am.
Q.       Do you know that this is your dying statement and that you are going to die this very evening?
A.       I feel it now. I know it. Goodbye.

Carl Still stood trial from Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, 1910. He was convicted and sentenced to hang. But the Supreme Court reversed in an opinion reported at 125 Tenn. 80, 140 S.W. 298 (1911). Chief Justice Shields opined that the dying declaration hearsay exception did not admit "previous threats by the accused against the declarant and facts tending to prove a motive for the crime."

Would this be error today? No. Tennessee Rule of Evidence 804(b)(2) admits a declarant's statement "concerning the cause or circumstances of what the declarant believed to be impending death." As Mueller and Kirkpatrick explain in Evidence (Third Edition) at page 926: "A statement describing a prior threat on the speaker's life ... fits the exception if the speaker is explaining the predicament that brought him to what seems death's door."

Carl Still was retried April 17 - 24, 1912. Perhaps the most delicious testimony I have read during years of studying legal history is that of Senia Lee. At the first trial she swore to seeing a white male running from the crime scene. At the second trial she gave the same damning testimony. Defense counsel challenged her with an allegedly inconsistent statement. Here are transcript excerpts:

Q.       At the former trial you testified that there was not any lumber out there, didn't you?
A.       If you have got it changed it is a grand mistake, for I said it right before the grand jury and I said it right when I was on the witness stand before. I don't like for anybody to say that I have lied, for I know I have not. I am tired and I am going. (Witness here left the witness stand.)

Still was again convicted, but this time the punishment was life imprisonment. The Supreme Court affirmed on Oct. 26, 1912.

Gov. Rye pardoned Carl Still on Dec. 22, 1917. He worked as an optician in Knoxville and later in Jackson, Mississippi. He died in 1968.

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, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, Tennessee Judicial Conference, and UT College of Law.