Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes once suggested that the law is not what is written in the books but what happens when a bad person comes into court. In other words, laws against certain behaviors may be written and punishments prescribed for violators, but if a person who is clearly guilty and has made a true confession is still exonerated by the court, then for all practical purposes a law against that behavior does not exist.
Such seems to have been the case in Sedalia during the 1920s when miscarriages of justice allowed some of the guilty to go free while others whose guilt was questionable or whose ability to assist in their own defense due to developmental disabilities were punished. The case of Ivan McKay, accused of shooting and killing Andrew Thompson, would cause Holmes to question if shooting and killing a man was really considered a crime in Pettis County.
McKay shot Thompson on West Main Street on Oct. 3, 1927. McKay came to the police station voluntarily and confessed to the shooting. He was originally arrested for assault, but when Thompson died on Oct. 5, the charge was raised to second-degree murder. The charge was later reduced to charge of manslaughter.
Testimony at the Coroner’s Inquest involved whether the men had been drinking, and why Thompson started a fist fight with McKay. The two men had been sleeping in cars at a garage owned by Walter Hunt. McKay testified that Thompson had asked McKay to go to the basement with him. McKay refused and Thompson became angry, knocking McKay to the floor. McKay left the garage, got a gun, and returned. He later encountered Thompson on West Main Street, where Thompson again assaulted him. McKay fired twice, hitting Thompson in the stomach and the hip.
The trial opened on January 27, 1928. Attorney A. L. Shortridge represented McKay, who appeared at trial with his uncle Jack Walton. Prosecutor E.W. Couey represented the state. He was assisted by attorney W.D. O’Bannon, who had been hired by Thompson’s mother to assist Couey in the prosecution. A panel of 12 jurors chosen from 30 possible jurors included George Bischel, Emery Rutt, G.C. Hood, W. M. Cranfill, B.J. Lemler, Herbert Beach, Virgil Hieronymous, Claus Grother, William Haeslip, E. H. Weinrich, and Frank Berlin.
At the trial, a new and different bit of testimony was offered. Thompson’s brother Robert told of a deathbed confession Andrew made, claiming he had “no fuss” with McKay, that he was merely cranking his car to start it when McKay shot him. The jury was excused while this testimony was presented to the judge, who ruled it admissible. The jury then heard Robert’s statements.
McKay himself testified at trail as he had at the inquest — that Thompson had assaulted him and had threatened him, so he shot Thompson in self-defense.
The jury deliberated only 17 minutes before returning a verdict of “not guilty.” The case raises some questions as to the nature of a claim of self-defense. Why did McKay not simply go home as Officer Press Moffat suggested, instead of continuing on Main Street? Why did he get a gun when he admitted he had no experience with guns? And more interesting, why was Thompson so upset that McKay wouldn’t go to the basement with him? The questions remain without answers.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.