The murder was committed in 1824. Isaac Desha had separated from his wife, who was reportedly “terrified” of him, and was staying in Richard Dogget’s roadside tavern/inn on the border of Fleming County. On November 2 of that year, Francis Baker showed up and checked himself into the inn. A newspaperman from Mississippi, he was en route to New Jersey where he planned to get married. He was well-dressed and had a lot of luggage with him.
Baker wanted to visit a local man whom Desha also happened to know, and Desha volunteered to take him there. The two men set off together, Desha riding his bay horse and Baker on a gray mare, carrying two saddlebags.
They never arrived at their mutual acquaintance’s home.
Two hours later, a neighbor named Milton Ball noticed a gray mare, with saddle and bridle but no rider, wandering aimlessly on the highway. He caught it and was trying to find the owner when he encountered another riderless horse. This one he recognized as Desha’s. It had a saddle but no bridle.
Milton Ball got his brother, who took the horse to Desha’s residence. No one was home and he left it there.
As Ball was still trying to identify the gray horse’s owner, he came upon Isaac Desha walking down the road carrying two saddlebags. Desha identified the mare as his own property and took it from Ball, and they parted ways.
Awhile later, Francis Baker’s saddlebags were found empty and abandoned. The man never returned to the inn. The locals put two and two together and looked warily at Desha, but there was no hard evidence of foul play and he was the governor’s son, after all, so they said nothing.
That hard evidence turned up within a week, in the form of Francis Baker’s brutalized corpse — partially stripped, and hidden behind a fallen tree only yards from where Desha had been seen carrying the saddlebags. He’d been beaten with some blunt object and his throat was slit, and he had unusual stab wounds that were “four-square” shaped.
Fragments of a horse bridle and a whip were recovered from the scene; Desha owned a horse whip with a heavy handle that could have inflicted the injuries that killed Baker. Desha also owned a dagger that, it turned out, precisely matched the oddly shaped stab holes in Baker’s shirt.
The circumstantial evidence continued to pile up: the mare Desha had claimed as his own turned out to be Baker’s horse, and he also had Baker’s gold watch and the clothing and money that had been packed in Baker’s saddlebags. Desha claimed he’d randomly encountered two unknown men who’d sold the horse to him, and that he didn’t recognize it as stolen property, even though he’d been riding with Francis Baker only hours beforehand.
As for the watch, money and clothes, Desha didn’t even try to account for those.
He was arrested, and tried for murder in January 1825. The case was sensational and they had to move the trial elsewhere because the court determined Desha couldn’t get a fair trial locally. His father hired the finest defense attorney that there was, but the jury took only an hour to convict and recommended a death sentence.
Desha’s attorneys immediately appealed the verdict and sentence. One of the issues was that the sheriff had stayed with the jury during their deliberations, something Desha’s defense said was improper. The sheriff had presumably watched over the jury because a number of them got anonymous notes threatening to burn them in effigy if they voted to convict.
(Not threats to burn the jurors, mind. Threats to burn their effigies.)
The appeals court judge, one George “Peg Leg” Shannon, agreed with the defense and overturned the verdict. The fact that he was good friends with Desha’s father the governor had nothing to do with it, he said, and the outrage among the citizenry and angry editorials in the newspapers would never make him admit otherwise.
Desha got his second trial in September 1825 and got convicted and sentenced to death again. Once again the case was overturned on appeal, this time because the prosecution had not proved Francis Baker’s murder took place in Fleming County like the indictment said.
The local papers called the trial a “farce” and ranted about corruption within the judiciary. The Winchester Gazette editorialized, “It would seem that justice has either bade adieu to Kentucky, or that her judges are the most corrupt and desperate men living.”
But there was nothing to be done about it: Desha would have to be tried a third time. He was, in February 1826, well over a year after the murder, and the third jury convicted him too.
Desha despaired over his third conviction and attempted suicide in July of that year, slitting his throat in his cell. He very nearly succeeded, and the surgeon who brought him back from the brink had to put in a silver tube to reinforce his severed windpipe. For the rest of his life he could speak only in a whisper. The tube needed to be removed regularly for cleaning, and every time this happened Desha endured a terrible feeling of suffocation.
Now, know ye, that in consideration of the premises, and by virtue of the power vested in me by the constitution, I have thought proper, and do hereby grant to the said Isaac B. Desha a full and free pardon for the supposed offence, as alleged against him in the bill of indictment …
Given under my hand at Frankfort, on the 18th day of June, A.D. 1827, and in the 36th year of the Commonwealth.
By the Governor.
Desha’s murder conviction was once more under appeal, but his suicide attempt had left him in such poor health that a sympathetic doctor signed an order saying keeping him in jail was endangering his life. He was released on bond pending the outcome of his appeal.
In March 1827, his lawyers tried to get the murder case dismissed on procedural grounds. Request denied. In June they filed for dismissal again, because the court had failed to seat a full panel of impartial jurors. (Desha used all his juror challenges to help keep the count down.)
Request denied again, and what’s worse, the court decided Isaac Desha’s health had improved enough that he could withstand the rigors of jail. He was remanded into custody.
Governor Desha still had one last card up his sleeve, and it was a trump. On June 18, the same day Isaac was ordered back behind bars, his father rose in court and issued him an unconditional pardon on the spot.
Joseph Desha committed political suicide when he pardoned his son. Isaac’s crime, and the obvious favors afforded him by the justice system, severely damaged the governor’s reputation.
Contrary to popular belief, Joseph didn’t resign after pardoning his son. He quietly finished out his term, retired to his farm and never entered politics again. He died in 1842.
As for Isaac Desha, there’s a legend that he moved to Honduras or Hawaii and has descendants still living there. In fact, although he did head west after his release from jail, he never made it further than Texas.
Like a lot of pioneers, he surely hoped he could put his former troubles behind him. But Isaac Desha carried trouble with him: in Texas, he allegedly robbed and killed a fellow traveler in a crime remarkably similar to Francis Parker’s murder. He was charged with murder yet again and this time he didn’t have an influential father to protect him.
Desha escaped the death penalty one last time, though, by dying of a fever on August 13, 1828, the day before his murder trial was supposed to start. He was twenty-six.