The Kings of Louisiana, Part 4: The Unwritten Law

This is Part 4 of The Kings of Louisiana. Be sure to read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3!  

The trial opened in September.  The large audience was almost entirely male, except some family members. Leo’s stepmother sat with his sister Hazel. “The defense says they are not fully decided to put Miss Olivier on the witness stand. It may not be necessary and if it can be avoided they would be glad of the opportunity,” the New Orleans Times–Democrat reported.

Mrs. Sallie King, Dr. King’s mother, appeared in heavy mourning. She sat next to her daughter and son-in-law. The doctor’s wife, Mrs. Phoebe King was present with one of her daughters, probably Phoebe, who was 14 at the time. This was the extent of the coverage of the doctor’s wife and daughters in the papers. They were never mentioned again.

The prosecution immediately ran into difficulties. A jury could not acquit Leo due to the unwritten law, but they suspected the case hinged on whether jurors were sympathetic to the idea. To their alarm, they were forced to accept several jurors who admitted they agreed with the unwritten law. However, they promised to put aside their personal feelings to act according to their oath as jurors.

The opening argument of Samuel Montgomery, ex-District Attorney of New Orleans, lasted over two hours. “This is the most horrible murder that has ever stained the fair name of our state,” he declared. “You have it from [Leo’s] own lips that he went to the office of Dr. King on a peaceful mission to force the doctor to marry his sister or leave the community.”

He snickered. “Think of it, gentleman! That big infant going to a man the size of Dr. King to force him to marry his sister. He knew Dr. King was already married. Then what did he go there for? He went there on a peaceful mission, armed with a big pistol.”

After the medical testimony and character witnesses, the defendant took the stand. The boy was calm and answered the questions put to him clearly. He said the family had known Dr. King about five years.

The defense contended that Hazel told Leo her story the night before he killed Dr. King. “She wanted to go see him,” Leo said, “but I said, ‘No, I’ll go see him myself.’”

“I went to Dr. King’s office to demand an explanation,” the defendant testified. “I wanted him to do the right thing and marry my sister.” Leo said when he entered the office, Dr. King at once tried to draw a weapon. “I fired as he rose. He staggered toward me.”

After shooting the doctor, Leo thought he may not have killed him. He returned to the room and found Dr. King struggling to get up. “I struck him once or twice with my revolver.” And shot him again.

“You went there mad enough to kill him, didn’t you, Leo?” the DA demanded.

“I can’t say I was mad,” Leo replied slowly. “I was not ready to shoot him down like a beast. I was not in the heat of a passion.”

“You went to see Dr. King to force him to marry your sister or leave the community?”

“Yes.”

“Would you have tried to force him to do so to the extent of killing him?”

“I might’ve done so,” the boy said coolly.

Closing arguments lasted over eleven hours. The prosecution railed against the unwritten law and ridiculed the self-defense plea, speculating that Leo brought the brass knuckles with him to Dr. King’s office and planted them in his victim’s hand.

The defense argued that Dr. King was the aggressor; Leo was just defending his sister. They said if Miss Olivier had been allowed to tell her story, it would have made the jurors’ blood run cold. It was an odd point for the defense to make, as they worked hard to ensure Hazel would not testify.

At 7 o’clock, Judge O’Neill charged the jury. He told the jury they could not consider the unwritten law. “You are not to arbitrarily substitute your private opinion of what the law ought to be. This would violate your oaths as jurors.”

The jury was out for 40 minutes. They voted unanimously to acquit Leo Olivier. A Semi-Weekly Times and Democrat reporter wrote, “The whole courtroom rose to its feet when the verdict was read and it was evident a noisy demonstration would’ve ensued had not the sheriff stopped the cheers.”

Leo Olivier received the verdict with surprising composure. He had been so confident of his acquittal, he packed his suitcase before leaving for court that day. He shook his lawyers’ hands and hugged his sister. Hazel Olivier pushed back the heavy veil she had worn throughout the trial, “her face was wreathed in smiles.”

Mrs. Sallie King was not in the courtroom to hear the decision.

Counsel for Olivier claimed this wasn’t a vindication of the unwritten law. “I regard it as an endorsement of our strong case of self-defense.”

The reporter took the trouble to state that no one believed that. In his judgement, it was primarily the jury’s sympathy for the unwritten law that caused them to acquit Olivier. The enthusiastic handshaking and back-slapping as the boy left the courtroom spoke volumes.

I have some thoughts, and I’d love to hear yours. Go to Part 5 of The Kings of Louisiana!

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