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1827: Isaac Desha pardoned by Gov. Joseph Desha

June 18th, 2013 Meaghan

On this day in Kentucky in 1827, a plainly guilty murderer who was on to his third trial received an unconditional pardon. His name was Isaac Desha and his father, Joseph, was the state governor.

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.

whereas the whole of the evidence against the said Isaac B. Desha being circumstantial, and from much of it being irreconcileable, I have no doubt of his being innocent of the foul charge; therefore is an object worthy of executive clemency.

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Scandal,USA

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26 thoughts on “1827: Isaac Desha pardoned by Gov. Joseph Desha”

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  19. John Henry Botkin says:

    Concerning the report of Isaac Desha’s death in Texas:
    In his Book EVOLUTION OF A STATE, Noah Smithwick relates tells many tales of early Texas. Among them is his version of the murder done by Isaac Desha. Smithwick, out of respect for the Desha family provides Desha with the pseudonym, Parker. Here is what he writes of Desha’s faked death in Texas. (note that in warm weather, green cottonwood quickly develops the odor of decaying flesh) You be the judge of this story taken from the last two paragraphs of chapter 2 of EVOLUTION OF A STATE.

    “Texas and Coahuila then constituted one state, with the seat of government at Saltillo, and in all Texas there was no tribunal for the trial of murder cases. The custom was to take down the evidence and send it to Saltillo. While this was being done it transpired that Parker was not his true name, which, for the sake of an honest family, I withhold. Under circumstances similar to the present he had murdered a man in his native state, of which his father was at the time governor. The evidence was so conclusive that all efforts to save him were futile, though the trial was obstructed in every way possible and his father well nigh impoverished himself trying to defeat the ends of justice. Parker lay in jail nearly two years and at length in a fit of despair attempted to cut his throat, but either his strength failed him or his courage, and he only succeeded in severing the windpipe, which would have answered every purpose but for the interposition of the physician, who inserted a silver tube to secure his breathing. Failing to secure his release, after exhausting every other means, the heart-broken father – a father still, even to the extent of sacrificing his honor – exercised his executive prerogative to save his guilty son from the gallows and immediately resigned his office. The murderer fled from the fury of an indignant populace and sought safety in that land of refuge – Texas – only to continue his career of crime. The facts in the Early murder case were taken before the alcalde and dispatched to Saltillo, but, before there was any return made, Parker was taken sick; there was no physician near, and he was left to the care of old Jimmy Whiteside, who finally announced that he was dead and, assisted by his negro man, forthwith proceeded to prepare the body for burial, accounting for the haste on the ground that, having died of fever and the weather being very warm, decomposition at once ensued. There was no coroner, and, when the few whom curiosity led thither arrived at Whiteside’s cabin, the body was already nailed top in a rough box, from which a sickening odor emanated. Everybody was satisfied, and the incident was almost forgotten when a citizen of San Felipe, having business in Mobile, Ala., met and talked with Parker in the flesh. On returning to San Felipe he reported the meeting; the coffin was exhumed and found to contain only a cottonwood chunk, which, when green, was about the weight of a man. The artful scoundrel had worked on Whiteside’s sympathies with a pitiful story of persecution, from which he was trying to escape to Mexico, of a quarrel with Early whom he was forced to kill in self defense, and thus prevailed on his kind-hearted jailor to assist him to escape. Well, he was gone and not at all likely to trouble that community again, so Uncle Jimmy Whiteside was not brought to time for his breach of the law.”

    “An article published in the Louisville Courier Journal since the above was written, furnishes the clue to an interesting sequel thereto. The statement was to the effect that the late Minister Willis, who represented the United States in Hawaii during Cleveland’s last administration, discovered in the person of a native Hawaiian missionary a son of the quondam Parker by a native woman; Parker having resumed his family name, which, being a peculiar one, led to his identification by Minister Willis, who, being a native of the same state with Parker, was familiar with all the circumstances of his first crime. When and by what means the double-dyed murderer who had twice almost miraculously escaped the gallows effected his retreat to those then savage, far away islands, and how many more victims paved his way thereto, will never be known; but could the story be revealed it would doubtless make an interesting chapter. ”

  20. lawguy says:

    I followed the Ryan matter rather closely when it was happening. People were large numbers of people on death row being exonerated and it was simply a reasonable thing to do. These people had for the most part exhausted their appeals and yet upon further evidence they were determined to be not guilty.

    Appeals are not a retrial, rather they focus on mistakes that were made at the trial level. Quite often although there are serious mistakes the appeal court and more and more the Supreme Court determines not to remand no matter how bad the mistakes.

    There is the case of the defense attorney falling asleep at a trial in Texas for instance. Appeal, no reversal.

    Often the defense attorney does not have enough money to hire the necessary experts (and that money is many times not provided by the state). There is also the undeniable fact that the number of brown and black people on death row far exceeds their percentage in our country.

  21. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    “Ryan was in the process of reviewing all the remaining death sentences when his term came to an end. Apparently he feared his successor wouldn’t bother to finish what he’d started”

    I don’t believe this. He did not, with the stroke of a pen, allow the guilty to live because of this. It just isn’t true. I have my suspicions as to why, and I think another form of corruption was a part of his decision. Perhaps it was getting back at a society that was about to ship him off to where he belonged.

  22. Meaghan says:

    What ulterior motives can you think of for his actions? I don’t know very much about Ryan, though I was aware he’d been sent to prison for corruption.

  23. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    I think Ryan had ulterior motives for doing it, and as I said, no governor should be allowed to grant pardons to the condemned; especially when the case has gone through the courts all the way to the US Supreme Court. That a single individual can throw out at will the very carefully crafted rule of law pertaining to death penalty cases, speaks of a judicial absurdity, and one that should be addressed .

    I do think it’s hysterical that Ryan went to prison soon afterwards.

  24. Meaghan says:

    Well, Kevin, with all due respect, regarding Gov. Ryan in Illinois, more people on death row in that state had been exonerated than executed in recent years, and Ryan was in the process of reviewing all the remaining death sentences when his term came to an end. Apparently he feared his successor wouldn’t bother to finish what he’d started.

    Pardoning the entire death row in one fell sweep was an extreme act but I can understand why he did it, given Illinois’s poor record when it came to actually convicting the right person.

  25. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    I have never believed the governor of any state should have the power to pardon, and this is a perfect example of its abuse; albeit, a very pale one.

    Here in Kentucky, we have the Kevin Stanford case where a convicted killer (he raped, sodomized, and murdered a young mother), was pardoned by the stroke of a pen by the idiot governor who declared justice was being done! It didn’t matter the conviction had been upheld in the lower courts all the way up to the Supreme Court of the united States. He (who was married but embroiled in a scandal pertaining to a long-term affair with another woman), decided to “right a wrong”! Today, Kevin Standford is allowed to breath the same air he denied to his victim; has visits with his wife and children, and is eating three hot meals a day, watching TV, and all on the taxpayers dime.

    And then there is the egregious tale of the governor who, some years back, pardoned everyone on death row in the state of Illinois, only to go to prison soon afterwards himself!

    No, it was a mistake to give the power to pardon to governors. That said, don’t expect things to change. The political buffoons want it this way.

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