Scott County Historical Society
Scott County, Virginia

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Murder On Highway 58

Picture taken early 1930Ěs. Home of Thomas R. Carter on Highway 58. Scott County, 4 miles East of Hiltons. Convict camp on property when working on the road.

By OMER C. ADDINGTON

     In the 1930's when the Commonwealth of Virginia was building the winding and meandering highway #58 that snakes its way over the hills and through the valleys from Moccasin Gap to Bristol, Virginia, a murder took place. This murder took place on September 15, 1932, near Stoney Point church. This highway was built , with convict labor. The convict camp was located on the farm of the late Rev. T. R. Carter.

     Three convicts were serving time for robbery and grand larceny. The three were Thomas Marshall, Clarence Frye and Thomas Hart. These three convicts attacked the guard Alton Leonard and the guard foreman Charlie Branson. Alton Leonard's skull was crushed and he was rushed to the hospital in Kingsport where he died. Charlie Branson eventually recovered. Some say that the attack was provoked by the guard, Alton Leonard. Others say it was a conspiracy among the three to kill the guards and escape.

     The three convicts stole a car and headed toward Bristol. The first to be captured was Marshall. He was taken to Richmond and placed in solitary confinement. The other two, Frye and Hart, were later captured and taken to Richmond. They were later brought back to Gate City and confined in the Scott County jail. All three were tried for murder and escape. Frye and Marshall were sent to the penitentiary. According to witnesses it was Thomas Cole Hart that struck the fatal blow that killed Alton Leonard.

     A regular grand jury was impaneled according to law on the tenth day of October, 1932. The jurors were W. F. C. Blackwell, Emory E. Robinette, A. J. Donelson, H. F. Addington, George E. Carter, E. T. Sproles and A. R. Grigsby.

     An indictment against Thomas Cole Hart for murder and escape from officers of the penitentiary was handed down by the grand jury. Hart was to be tried at the January term or court, but the case was continued to the October term. The case was again continued. It was not until April 12, 1935, that the case came to trial.

     When this day came, the attorney for the Commonwealth and the defendant were led to the bar by the county's jailer. The defendant, Thomas Cole Hart, through his attorney filed a plea nul tiel (meaning - no such record). The Commonwealth took general issue with this.

     The defendant, being arraigned, pleaded not guilty to the indictment. Jurors, to constitute the panel of twelve, could not be had by the court from those called. The court then directed another order, venire facias, which means a summons for persons to appear in court to serve as jurors. The jurors were: J. M. Yates, Everett Starnes, W. K Wilhelm, Mark Castle, Kelly Williams, E. S. Barker, R. F. Johnson, Audley Fraley, J. H. Shepard, Otto Culbertson, H. C. Pierson and Ezra L. McConnell.

     This writer interviewed one of the jurors. This juror told me that the judge instructed the jury that in this type of murder case, when a convict kills a guard, only two verdicts could be rendered. The only two verdicts that could be given were guilty and not guilty. If found guilty, the penalty was death.

     The jury could not agree on a verdict whereupon, by consent of the parties, and with assent of the court, J. M. Yates, one of the jurors, withdrew and prevented the jury from rendering their verdict. They were discharged and the case was continued until the next term of the circuit court, for a new trial to be had therein. The case was continued until the next term of court.

     This case was continued until July 1935. The jurors for this new trial were: J. W. Barnette, R. E. Lyons, R. F. Gillenwater, James H. Edwards, N. P. Click, C. H. Neely, A. J. Freeman, J. H. Turner, Clark Pierson, J. W. Sturgiel, Joseph Salling and G. C. Williams.

     When the day came for the trial (July 15, 1935), the defendant was accompanied by his attorney and was led to the bar in the custody of the jailer of this county. He was arraigned and pleaded not guilty to the indictment. The defendant, by counsel, filed a special plea in writing, to which plea the Commonwealth replied. The defendant, by counsel, moved the court to quash the indictment in this case for the following reasons: 1. The statute under which he is being prosecuted is in violation of the fifth amendment to the Constitution of the United States. 2. Same is in violation of the eighth amendment of the Constitution of the United States. 3. Same in in violation of the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution of the United States. 4. Same is in violation of section eight of the Constitution of Virginia. 5. Same is in violation of section nine, article one, of the Constitution of Virginia.

     The motions were argued, the court materially considered same, doth overruled the said motion and doth refused to quash the said indictment.

     On July 17, 1935, the jurors aforesaid were sent to their room to consider their verdict. After some time had passed they returned to court and upon their oath did say, "We the jury find the defendant. Thomas Cole Hart, guilty as charged in the within indictment and fix his punishment as death." It was signed by C. H. Neely, foreman. After he was convicted of murder, he was there upon sentenced to be electrocuted on the eighteenth day of October, 1935. A reprieve was granted to March 27, 1936, by Governor George C. Perry, until the case could be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia.

     The petition of Thomas Cole Hart for a "writ of error" to a judgment of the Circuit Court of Scott County rendered on the nineteenth day of July, 1935 was heard in the Supreme Court of Appeals. This was held at the Library Building in the City of Richmond. This court upheld the decision of the Circuit Court of Scott County. Another reprieve was granted by Governor Perry until the case could be heard by the United States Supreme Court. This reprieve was granted on March 27, 1936. "The said cause came to be heard before the Supreme Court of the United States on the said transcripts of record and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof it is now here ordered and adjudged by this court that the appeal herein be and the same is hereby dismissed for the want of jurisdiction .

     And the same is hereby remanded to you the said judges of the said Supreme Court of Appeals of the Commonwealth of Virginia in order that such proceedings may be had in the said cause." This was witnessed by the Honorable Charles E. , Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

     The court fixed the date of execution of the defendant for July 24, 1936.

     "It is further ordered by the court that the clerk of this court do forthwith furnish to the Superintendent of the State Penitentiary at Richmond, Virginia, two certified copies of this order, so that said superintendent may deliver a copy hereof to said defendant, Thomas Cole Hart, within ten days."

     With the execution of Thomas Cole Hart, brought to an end one of the longest murder trials in Scott County. As far as anyone knows this was the only murder case ever appealed to the United States Supreme Court from Scott County.

References: Court records from the Clerk's Offices, Scott County Courthouse, Gate City, VA.

 

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