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December 5, 2016 / Joanne Yeck

The Famous Forbes Case of Buckingham County: Part LVIII


“Wooldridge Trial Near End”

Once again The Famous Forbes Case was featured on the front page of Richmond’s The Times-Dispatch. The article noted that the case was rife with contradictory evidence, all presented by reputable witnesses.

On January 10th, more witnesses were introduced for the defense. Captain J. D. Gilliam, a police officer in Farmville, testified that the ground was frozen on the night of March 3, 1904; no tracks could have been made. Mr. P. A. Grigg, a member of the Buckingham Board of Supervisors, supported Gilliam’s testimony.

For the prosecution, Miss Bessie O’Brien, repeated the “damaging” testimony she gave against Dan Wooldridge in the preliminary hearing, stating that he said that Charlie Forbes could have saved two buggies from the fire, if he had had any sense. Miss Georgia O’Brien supported her sister. P.A. Forbes impeached the previous testimony of Policemen Fogus. Arthur Forbes, son of P.A. Forbes and a bank clerk in Farmville, corroborated his father’s testimony. Mrs. Dick Forbes was brought to the stand again and contradicted Maud Wooldridge’s testimony.

The trial dragged on to a ridiculous extreme. How could the jury possibly sort through this maze of contradictory testimony?

A high point came when Mrs. Van Anderson supported her husband’s earlier testimony, adding, “I told my husband that I suppose he (Wooldridge) thought he was monarch of all he surveyed.” The Farmville Herald noted: “A ripple of laughter went over the courtroom at this, the judge himself having to smile profusely.”

Finally, it was time to instruct the jury to consider the evidence.

Judge Hundley’s Instructions

The reminders to the jury were stern. Under the law, every person charged with a crime was presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt. The Times-Dispatch elaborated:

(1) . . . this presumption of innocence goes with the accused throughout the entire case and applies at every stage thereof until removed by the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt; therefore, if the jury, upon the whole case, or upon any material fact essential to the establishment of the guilt of the accused, entertains a reasonable doubt of his guilt, it is their duty to find the prisoner not guilty.

(2) The Court instructs the jury that the guilt of the accused is not to be inferred because the facts proven are consistent with his guilt, but that they must be inconsistent with his innocence.

(3) The Court instructs the jury. . . . That in the application of circumstantial evidence to the determination of a case, the utmost caution and vigilance should be used.

The newspaper continued to list Judge Hundley’s instructions point by point, including that no matter how strong one hypothesis might seem, other hypotheses could be true. He reminded them not to be swayed by “a merciful disposition or kindly feeling towards him (Wooldridge), or from sympathy for him or his family.” He warned against apparent confessions or admissions of guilt and impressed upon the jury that the prisoner must have confessed to the precise crime as charged. He defined the charges as: “a number of houses, including the smokehouse on the farm of John S. Forbes, were set on fire and burned at or about the same hour on the night of the third day of March, 1904; and, that the prisoner, Wooldridge made admissions or confessions which connect him with such burning, either alone or as a guilty participant with others in the crime.”

The judge concluded, saying:

The court has endeavored to exclude all near expressions of opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the prisoner; but if any expressions of that character escaped the attention of the court, then the court now instructs the jury that no expressions of opinion detrimental to the character of the accused about this or other matters can be considered by them.

Coming Next: The Jury’s Decision

Need to catch up? Click here for The Famous Forbes Case of Buckingham County: Part I

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