This is the third in a series of articles about the murder of Janie Sharp in rural Winston County in 1910. For more details about the series, scroll down this page to the first article. This article concerns the first trial of the only person indicted in her death.
The First Trial
Charges were brought against Swinton Permenter for the brutal murder of Janie Sharp. The two other individuals brought in for questioning were released and the authorities believed they had their man. A significant amount of circumstantial evidence existed:
A handkerchief believed to be the victim's in Permenter's possession.
A reasonable match of shoe size to some of the tracks found near the murder area.
His proximity to the area and time of the crime.
The bloodhound's tracking of Permenter to his family's home.
His strange and, at least to some, misleading behavior during the search for Janie.
There were rumors also. Some claimed that Swinton Permenter made some remarks indicating his desire for Janie's affection and that he had made some vague threats against Janie's Father, possibly because he prevented Permenter from pursuing Janie.
This circumstantial evidence against this young man was significant - If it was accurate.
Contrary to modern day criminal trials, things advanced quickly. The trial was set in Louisville in early October, 1910. The case was heard before Judge McLean with prosecutors,Lamb, Gully and Jones and defense attorneys, Rodgers, Brantley, and Hopkins.
The Winston County Journal made much of Swinton Permenter's calm and composure throughout the trial and speculated that this worked against him in the minds of the jury. After ten days of testimony, cross examinations and lawyers' summations, the jury had the case. It didn't take long. They returned within minutes with a guilty verdict and indications were that they reached agreement on the first ballot.
Based upon the crime, the sentencing was without question. Before passing sentence, Judge McLean asked Permenter if he had anything to say. His only answer: "I AM NOT GUILTY." Swinton Permenter was sentenced to hang on November 25, 1910.
A motion for a new trail was made but denied and an appeal was immediately started for the State Supreme Court. In the meantime, Permenter was carried to the penitentiary in Jackson for safekeeping. With an appeal before the Court, his execution was on hold and he seemed to make friends among jailers and prisoners alike while in custody. News reports from the Jackson Daily News showed that many who came in contact with him, soon believed in his innocence. Witnesses indicated that Swinton believed two other individuals actually committed the crime and that they were involved in the case against him - possibly as witnesses.
On April 24, 1911, The Supreme Court of Mississippi "reversed and remanded" the verdict against Swinton Permenter. According to newspaper reports, the Court reversed the ruling and even indicated that it had doubts about his guilt. The grounds for reversal was based upon an instruction given to the jury concerning the use and validity of circumstantial evidence.
Considering the time he had already spent in jail and the Court's ruling, Permenter would be eligible for bail. In May, 1911, Swinton Permenter was released from prison on a $10,000 bond. Reports were that he returned home at least temporarily to the Rural Hill area.
His case would go back to Winston County for a retrial, but a change of venue due to all the publicity was granted and the next trial would be held in the City of Winona and was scheduled for October 1911. It would actually be more than a year before the final trial of Swinton Permenter. The October 1911 trial was indefintely continued due to non-appearance of several witnesses including Swinton's sister who was ill at the time.
The events between the October continuance and the final trial only added to the tragedy and mystery surrounding the whole case. Two additional unsolved murders, a possible alternative suspect and bribery charges created doubts, distrust and served to widen the breach between those convinced of Permenter's guilt and those who supported him.