This week I was working on the diaries of Judge Harold G. Knight, who sat on the bench here in Montgomery County and for two decades was president of the Montgomery County courts. Knight kept diaries for most of his life. Our collection covers the years 1893 to 1962. The diaries have many enclosures, items such as programs, letters, and newspaper clippings, that have been paperclipped to the relevant dates in the diaries.
One of the enclosures I came across concerned a murder trial that Judge Knight presided over in 1930. On July 4, 1930, Antoinette McCarris shot Joseph Lee in the back with a shot gun killing him. The earliest report in the Norristown Times-Herald (July 5, 1930) described Mrs. McCarris as a “pretty brunette.” It also described her as married to Joseph Lee, but that turned out not to be the case.
Three years earlier, McCarris had left her husband in Virginia and run off with Lee, a former sailor, bringing her two children with her. They eventually settled on a small farm in Worcester, and both were 26 at the time of the killing. The police believed she murdered Lee out of jealously. Lee had shown interest in a younger woman, Bernice Doyle of Kensington. McCarris claimed the shooting was an accident that occurred when she fired off the shot gun to celebrate the 4th.
Given that several people had heard McCarris threaten to kill Lee on several occasions, the District Attorney, Frank X. Renninger, brought her up on charges of first degree murder and sought the death penalty.
The trial started on November 17th. It was Judge Knight’s first murder case. He wrote in his diary that day, “I confess it worries me considerably.” The first day was jury selection. The judge writes that one man declared he had a conscientious objection to capital punishment. “In about one case in twenty these were sincere in the other cases they were pure exhibitors of moral cowardice,” the judge writes.
The next day, two boys, Thomas Hicks, 14, and his brother James, 12, testified for the prosecution. Their father owned the farm Lee and McCarris were renting. Both boys reported that the couple had been fighting over Lee’s interest in Doyle. James claimed to have seen the shooting and demonstrated how McCarris pointed the shotgun at the kitchen door. The Commonwealth called a total of 25 witnesses before resting its case. Then Antoinette McCarris took the stand in her own defense.
“It was the most dramatic and tense hours I have ever seen in a court room,” Judge Knight wrote. He described McCarris as “young [and] frail.” He points out that she was married and a mother at only 15. “She made a deep impression on the just and I am beginning to have some doubts myself as to whether she actually intended to kill the man for whom she left her husband and family three years ago.”
According to the newspaper reports, McCarris denied both threatening to kill Lee and that the couple ever argued about Doyle. Under cross examination, however, she admitted to being jealous of the younger, blond Doyle. McCarris always stuck to her defense that the shooting was an accident. She said she loaded and cocked the gun in the house with the intention of firing it off in the yard.
The jurors, six men and six women, deliberated the case for two hours before returning to the courtroom. The Times-Herald described McCarris as being in a daze when the foreman announced the verdict “not guilty.”
Having no place to go after the trial, she returned to jail, while her lawyer, Edward F. Kane, made arrangements for her to return to Virginia to stay with relatives.
Judge Knight noted in his diary that the verdict was popular. He also wrote that she was acquitted “despite the powerful evidence produced by the Commonwealth and the inherent weakness of her own story.” He goes on, “It was just one of those cases where a pitiful and appealing woman was the defendant, accused of shooting the man she had left her home for and whom she feared had grown tired of her. The just looked upon her deed as justified and decided the case on their view of its moralities and not the law.”