The Second Trial
This is the 5th in a series of articles about the 1910 murder of Janie Sharp in Winston County, Ms. Due to the length of the actual trial, this article is somewhat longer than the previous four.
It had been more than 2 years since Janie Sharp's murder and it had been months since Investigator Ben Walker had died in a hail of buckshot. Now just three days before the start of the second trial of Swinton Permenter for Janie's death, Walter Permenter, Swinton's brother, had also been killed by an unknown assailant. A delay was inevitable but it would be a short one. On August 12th, 1912 - just one week after the original trial date, a crowd packed into a courtroom in Winona, Ms. for one of the most celebrated legal battles in Mississippi history. It was August and the heat was stifling but people came from all over the state to see the proceedings. The courtroom even contained a few women which was unusual at the time. Law enforcement was out in force and everyone entering the courtroom was searched.
The jury selection took the better part of two days and jurors were selected from a pool of 100. Both the prosecution and the defense were represented by a large team of attorneys including former judges and a former congressman. Before it was over, the prosecution would present 25 witnesses and the defense would bring 20 to the stand including the defendant during the twelve day trial.
The prosecution's case was not significantly different than the one it presented during the first trial in Louisville contending that Swinton Permenter encountered Janie on the Commodore Road, forced her into the woods where he attacked and brutally murdered her. The defense's strategy was to cast doubt upon some of the evidence and testimony presented and to provide alternatives to Swinton as the killer.
The trial started with Janie's Mother as the first witness for the prosecution. Much of her testimony surrounded the identification of the handkerchief in question. She testified that the handkerchief was a gift from Janie's Grandmother. After close visual inspection, she identified the handkerchief found in Permenter's possession as the one that belonged to Janie indicating a slight tear and some particular stitching. This handkerchief was key to the whole trial. If the jury believed that it belonged to Janie, it would leave little doubt of Permenter’s guilt. Mrs. Sharp also testified that there had been no bad feelings between her family & the Permenters and that there was no “courting relationship” between Janie & Swinton.
Several witnesses testified concerning Janie’s presence at the general store in Rural Hill the day of the murder. There was basic agreement as to the time she left (3:00pm) and the items in her possession at that time.
The next day’s testimony started in a similar manner. Claud Massey testified that he met Janie on the Commodore Road in that general time frame. He denied meeting anyone else on the road and he specifically denied seeing Hewlet Ray and Tom McElroy (the two men accused by Detective Ben Walker) when questioned by the defense.
Lee Sharp was the next major witness to testify .His testimony and cross examination took more than five hours. In great detail, he described the search for his sister, and Permenter’s behavior during this time including carrying a pistol in his pocket, his discouragement of others in searching the very area where Janie’s body was later found, and his percieved attempt to lead them in another direction. He then told of finding his sister’s body about a quarter of a mile from the Permenter home in a branch, partially submerged. He noticed that her throat was cut half way around and that she had a bruise on her head that he believed was done by the butt of a pistol. He told of later returning to the area and noticing signs of a scuffle in several places and tracks that appeared to be that of a man and a woman, all roughly within a hundred yards of where Janie’s body was found. He later described the clothes worn by Swinton Permenter during the search (suit of blue serge) and his arrest later that morning.
Lee Sharp’s testimony led to another key point in the trial. After Permenter came under suspicion, the shoes he was wearing after he changed clothes were compared to some of the tracks near the crime scene. It was determined at that time that the shoe matched the tracks. In the trial these were called “low quarter shoes” and were identified by Lee Sharp as the ones worn by Permenter on the night of the search. The defense then produced another set of shoes that were referred to as “high quarter shoes”. The defense claimed that these were the shoes worn by Permenter until he changed clothes the next morning when he replaced them with the low quarter shoes. To bolster their claim the defense called former sheriff A.P. Hull and his deputy W.R. Hull. Both identified the high quarter shoes as those found with Permenter’s clothes and that they were wet when they took possession of them. When compared to a witch-hazel stick used to measure the track at the time of murder, the shoes did not correspond to the measure. This cast significant doubt on the validity of any track & shoe evidence that might have been used in the first trial.
The state presented an array of witnesses concerning the night of the search and Permenter's behavior and location. These included Hewlett Ray and Tom McElroy who also denied any involvement in the murder. Several witnesses testified to statements made by Swinton concerning his desire for Janie and his dislike of her Father because he refused to allow him to court Janie.
Also included was testimony by J.T. Hanna whose bloodhound trailed to the Permenter home and ultimately to Swinton. More witnesses spoke of Swinton's remarks that the dogs would surely track him because of his presence in the woods while searching for Janie.
Terrell Hall's testimony was read into the record as he was not present at the trial. His evidence was that he was with Swinton when he went home to change clothes and wash. He indicated that the clothes were later found in a side room of the home and included a barlow knife, tobacco and two handkerchiefs - one of which was a woman's.
After a parade of witnesses the prosecution rested its case. The defense used this as an opportunity to make a motion for dismissal. This was, of course, denied and the defense began to present its case.
Most of the defense's first witnesses concerned the time frame of the murder and their testimony seemed to indicate that Swinton would have had little time to commit the act. Those who had been swimming earlier in the day with Permenter indicated that they left together at about 2:35 pm. Alonzo Burchfield testified that he was with Swinton at about 3:20 when they stopped to draw water at the Permenter house before returning to the fields to plow. He indicated that he last saw Permenter headed to the field at about 3:30. Permenter's sister testified that she saw Swinton at about 3:45. If these times were accurate, it would have been highly unlikely that Swinton Permenter would have had sufficient time to commit the murder.
The prosecution presented some rebuttal witnesses that called the defense's time line into question but there was no definitive resolution of the issue.
The defense then moved to the question of the handkerchief. It was never denied that a lady's handkerchief was in Swinton's possession, but there was an explanation. Swinton's sister, Nellie, testified that on the 4th of July previous to the murder, at a picnic at Indian Springs, several young people including Janie Sharp were sitting in various buggies. She remembered Janie and a young man named Fletcher Whitney (or Whitmire) were sitting in her brother Walter's (now deceased) buggy. She testified that at some time later, Walter handed her a handkerchief that he had picked up in his buggy after the picnic and told her to tell Swinton to find its owner. It was the defense's claim that Swinton never did so and that was why it was still in his possession. At this point,the defense counsel produced another handkerchief. Nellie compared the two and indicated that they were identical. Both handkerchiefs were handed to the jury for comparison. It was apparent that the defense wanted to contradict previous testimony that the handkerchief found in Permenter's possession was unique and identifiable as Janie's.
The next witness was J.L. Wilson who testified that as Janie's body was being prepared for burial at her home, he saw next to the corpse, not only her parasol and her bundles from the store but also a lady's handkerchief. He indicated that one of the women present identified it as Janie's and the same one that she had change tied up in at the store that day. When questioned by the prosecution, Wilson indicated that several others had heard the remark but could not specifically identify anyone else who could corroborate it. The prosecution made a point of identifying Wilson as a farmer who rented land from the Permenter family.
The defense next addressed the rumor of an eyewitness to the crime. Rumors had circulated that Swinton's cousin, Effie Permenter who had since married Henry Ray, had actually seen Swinton murder Janie as she was washing clothes near her home. Rumors also persisted that Lee Sharp had offered Effie's husband $100 if she would come forward. Effie testified in the case and denied any knowledge of the murder. Lee Sharp was also recalled and he denied making the offer but he did believe that Effie knew all about the murder.
Several more witnesses were presented by the defense concerning times that Swinton was seen throughout that afternoon. Now it was time for the defendant to testify. Swinton Permenter took the stand on the morning of August 20th. He indicated that he had known Janie Sharp all his life, had kept company with her several times but other girls as well. He testified that on the day of the murder, he plowed until 11:30 am, went to the Heinze Post Office to give the Postmaster money to order four quarts of sherry wine. He then went to the swimming hole with several companions. The distance from there to the Sharp residence was 3.5 miles. He claimed to have left the swimming hole with his companions at 2:36 and parted company with Lon Burchfield at around 3:20 to 3:30 where he went directly to the field and resumed his plowing. He indicated that he changed plow horses with his Father during that time and that he finished plowing at sundown. When he reached home, the phone rang and the news of Janie’s disappearance was reported. Swinton denied certain statements attributed to him about his desires for Janie, and he denied trying to mislead the search party. He also denied that the bloodhound used that night specifically scented him. He said that after Janie’s body was found, he went home to change because his clothes were wet from a light rain during the night. He explained that the woman’s handkerchief in his pocket was the one found by his brother Walter on July the Fourth and that he had simply stuck the handkerchief in his coat pocket and forgotten about it. The prosecution set the crowd abuzz when Swinton was asked if he had ever been fined or indicted for assaulting a little girl. Swinton denied both and said that he had never been convicted in a justice or circuit court. The prosecution apparently did not follow up on this question.
The defense presented several other witnesses, including Swinton’s parents who corroborated his testimony. J.P. McAllilley a former justice of the peace, had observed the location of Janie’s body at that time and noted that there was very little blood at the spot and that there was no evidence of a struggle, creating the idea that Janie’s body may have been moved from where she was actually killed.
The defense rested their case and the state presented several rebuttal witnesses. These witnesses disputed the time line presented by several defense witnesses and some hearsay evidence of rumors and conversations about the veracity of certain witnesses, conflicts of the timeline presented by the defense and statements made by Permenter were presented. After several back and forth rebuttal witnesses, the case went to closing arguments.
On August 22, arguments for the defense and prosecution were scheduled to begin. The already large crowd continued to swell. The gallery was reserved for women only and it was packed. People had come from all over the state including many attorneys who came specifically to hear the closing arguments. Extra deputies were stationed around the courtroom adding to the already tight security. The defendant’s family sat on one side of the courtroom while the Sharp’s sat on the other. That morning brought much legal wrangling over the instructions to the jury and it was afternoon before closing arguments began. Seven different attorneys addressed the jury and these closing arguments took as much as ten hours continuing into the next day. It was 3:30 in the afternoon before the jury actually got the case. At 8 o’clock that evening they retired for the night without a verdict. The fate of Swinton Permenter would be decided the next day on August 24, more than two years after Janie Sharp’s murder.