Golden Country Presents: Death on the Range – Pt. VII: The trial concludes

Barbara Roden's tales of dastardly deeds on the Cariboo Trail.

The Crown had had its say in the case of Rex vs. Clinger, asserting that the case was one of cold-blooded murder for profit. Albert Lester “Chubby” Clinger had killed his partner, Thomas Burton Smith, on Feb. 4, 1915 with the deliberate intent of profiting from the crime. As evidence the Crown produced a cheque Clinger had forged on Smith’s account and a bill-of-sale (likewise forged by Clinger) that left all of Smith’s property and possessions to Clinger. There was also a letter to a neighbour that supposedly came from Smith, and explained that the man was leaving the country; but it was proved to be in Clinger’s handwriting, and was seen as a deliberate attempt to mislead anyone inquiring into Smith’s disappearance.

The defence, however, presented a case of accidental death. Clinger had tripped over something in the snow while approaching his partner at their camp near Dog Creek, and his rifle had discharged, killing his partner. Clinger, whose initial thought was to give himself up to police, had panicked, and his subsequent actions were, he said, a result of his “dazed and stupefied state” (as reported in the Ashcroft Journal on Oct. 9, 1915).

Mr. Justice Denis Murphy, presiding over the trial at the Clinton Assizes, had listened to both sides of the case. It was now his turn to address the jury, and on Sept. 25, 1915 he made a lengthy and detailed charge to the 12 men assembled. According to The Journal, he went into the case in a very thorough manner, and the jury would have gone into their deliberations knowing that they were deciding a very grave matter, for the automatic sentence in a case of murder was death.

Those who follow such things will often assert that the faster a jury returns its verdict, the more likely it is that it will render a decision of guilty. Of course, a fast decision by a jury could merely indicate that one side has presented a much more compelling case than the other; but in 2009 a paper in Review of Law and Economics: Volume 5, Issue 1 which studied criminal trials in Oregon suggested that guilty verdicts do indeed take less deliberation time on the part of the jury. Be that as it may, it could not have been reassuring to Albert Clinger when, after only 45 minutes, the jury indicated it had reached a verdict. When the 12 men returned to the makeshift courtroom within the Clinton schoolhouse, the foreman declared that they found Albert Lester Clinger guilty of the murder of Thomas Burton Smith.

The defendant was asked if he had anything to say. Clinger, who had shown a great interest in the proceedings, and had told a very connected and plausible story, declared that he was innocent of killing Thomas Smith intentionally. It was consistent with the tale he had told the court; but weighing against that story was the fact that while he claimed to have been dazed by the tragic turn of events, he had subsequently acted in a way that appeared deliberate and calculated. The jury, comprised of 12 cattle country men accustomed to the ways of the world, apparently had no doubt that the entire scheme was a premeditated plan on the part of Albert Clinger.

Why would he do such a thing? In 1 Timothy chapter 6, verse 10 we are told that “The love of money is the root of all evil”, and there is no doubt that Clinger profited – or at least tried to – from the death of Smith. It is doubtful that he would have continued to forge cheques in Smith’s name long after the man was known to be dead – Smith’s bank in Ashcroft would have realized something was up – but the bill-of-sale, had it been acknowledged as authentic, would have given Clinger all of the dead man’s worldly goods. It is impossible to know what their pre-emption at Springhouse Prairie was worth, but the land, house, and cattle would have had a cash value; more than enough, one supposes, to put a decent sum in Clinger’s pocket.

And perhaps that pre-emption was not earning quite enough money for two men to live on comfortably. At the beginning of World War I, in August 1914, demand for beef increased, and anyone with an interest in cattle would have assumed he was in for a healthy profit. Doubtless fearing war profiteering, however, the Canadian government acted quickly to freeze beef prices, so as 1915 began Clinger and Smith might well have been facing a bleak future wherein their cattle ranching venture was producing very little return for a good deal of investment. Smith, it will be remembered, had a freight-hauling business which he continued even after he and Clinger set up their ranch at Springhouse, which might indicate that their financial situation was precarious, and needed the additional income Smith’s business provided. We cannot know what Clinger’s financial situation was at the time, and history leaves no clue, but it might well have occurred to him, as 1915 began, that he could be doing much better if he had sole control of his and his partner’s assets.

Having heard Clinger’s statement, Mr. Justice Murphy proceeded to the next, inevitable, step. He announced that Albert Lester Clinger would be taken to Kamloops, where he would be hanged on Dec. 23, 1915. The accused now knew how long he had to live; a terrible knowledge for anyone, regardless of the circumstances. But how much more terrible would those three months be for Albert Clinger if he was indeed innocent of murder? It is true that he would still be guilty of other, lesser, crimes, but none that carried a sentence of death. What if Clinger’s story – that it was a tragic accident – was true?

To be continued

Barbara Roden