1901: People of the State of New York v. Roland Molineux
Katherine Adams, sixty-two years old, died on 28 December 1898 shortly after drinking a glass of water containing bromo-seltzer. Harry Seymour Cornish, a cousin of Adams, had received the bromo-seltzer in the mail. Cornish had taken it home, to the lodgings he shared with Adams, and had given it to her when she had complained of a headache. It was alleged that Roland Molineux, a chemist, had sent the bromo-seltzer to Cornish after the two men had quarreled.
The district attorney, Asa Bird Gardiner, indicted Molineux in 1899 for murder. Molineux was found guilty and sentenced to death. He won his appeal, however, on the grounds that the prosecution had introduced evidence suggesting that Molineux had previously poisoned Henry Barnet in similar circumstances. The Court of Appeals, in a landmark decision, ruled that the prosecution could not introduce evidence alleging a previous crime if that crime was not part of the indictment. Molineux was released from Sing Sing prison but suffered a mental breakdown shortly afterwards and died in 1917.
Source: Harold Schecter, The Devil’s Gentleman: Privilege, Poison and the Trial that Ushered in the Twentieth Century (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007)
1906: The People of the State of New York v. Josephine Terranova
In 1884 Josephine Pullare, five years old, travelled from her native Sicily to live with her uncle, Gaetano Riggio, and his wife, Concetta, in the Bronx. The young girl, according to her own account, was treated less as a relative and more as a domestic servant, working from dawn to dusk cleaning the house, preparing the meals, and running errands. The uncle, Gaetano, began to molest Josephine in 1900 and frequently raped her throughout her puberty and adolescence. In 1906 Josephine, then eighteen, met and married Joseph Terranova, a building contractor; but the marriage quickly disintegrated after she confided that her uncle had raped her. Joseph immediately renounced his new wife and Josephine, distraught at the sudden collapse of her marriage, armed herself with a gun and a knife and made her way back to her uncle’s house. On 22 February 1906 she attacked both relatives – Gaetano died two days later and Concetta succumbed to her wounds on 2 March – and on 14 May the district-attorney, William Travers Jerome, indicted Josephine Terranova for the murder of Concetta Riggio. The trial attracted enormous publicity on account of the defendant’s radiant beauty and the graphic nature of her testimony. Public approval of the death of the uncle and aunt was universal and the jury, despite the judge’s recommendation of a guilty verdict, took only a few minutes to acquit the defendant. The district-attorney abandoned the second indictment, for the murder of Gaetano Riggio, and Josephine Terranova emerged triumphant from the courthouse to the hosannas of the waiting multitude. The trial of Josephine Terranova was notable for the use of an insanity defense – Terranova’s attorney claimed that the defendant suffered temporary insanity on account of her abuse – and the apparent willingness of the jury to be swayed by emotional appeals rather than legal arguments. The criminal justice system seemed increasingly ineffective as defense attorneys succeeded more and more in winning acquittal for their clients in the most improbable circumstances.
Source: Jacob M. Appel, "The Girl-Wife and the Alienists: The Forgotten Murder Trial of Josephine Terranova," Western New England Law Review 26 (2004): 203-232.
1912, 1914: The People of the State of New York v. Charles Becker
On 16 July 1912 several gunmen shot and killed Herman Rosenthal, a casino owner, as he left the Hotel Metropole on 43rd Street near Times Square. Earlier that month Rosenthal, angry that police had raided his gambling house, had started to identify to reporters at the New York World those senior police officials who had extorted money from him in exchange for protection from police raids. On 29 July 1912 detectives from the District-Attorney’s Office arrested Charles Becker, a police lieutenant. The jury convicted Becker on the charge of first-degree murder but the verdict was overturned on appeal. Becker was convicted at a second trial in 1914. He was executed in Sing Sing prison on 3 July 1915.
Source: Mike Dash, Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York’s Trial of the Century (New York: Broadway Books, 2008)