'Speedy' murder trial convicts innocent man

In October 1857, a story from Ottawa County made newspapers across the nation that served as an example for court systems.
Kevin Collier
Apr 9, 2013

Justice could be swift — one week in fact, from a murder to the perpetrators being lodged in prison. The rapid pace of the conviction and sentencing raised eyebrows.

On the evening of Oct. 13, 1857, William Crosier and William Cronum, stationed aboard the schooner Charles Sumner moored at the port of Muskegon, went ashore after they heard sounds of dance music in the night air. The two Chicago men attended the dance event and, while there, Crosier accidentally broke a glass window at the establishment.

It was reported two Muskegon residents, William Young, age 27, and John Powers, age 21, procured guns, loaded them with buckshot and “swore they would shoot Crosier.”

Crosier and Cronum fled the dance, pursued by Powers and Young, and just as Crosier was attempting to get back aboard the Charles Sumner, was shot in the back and fell into the water. It was reported Crosier died instantly. Cronum was not injured.

Powers and Young were arrested moments later.

The next day, Oct. 14, Powers and Young were taken to Grand Haven, where they were lodged in the city jail.  On Oct. 16 the two men were indicted. On Oct. 17 the men were arraigned, tried and convicted of murder at the Ottawa County courthouse. On Oct. 20, the men were sentenced to solitary imprisonment for life by Ottawa County circuit court Judge George Martin. And on Oct. 21, only one week after the murder of William Crosier, Powers and Young arrived at the state penitentiary at Jackson, Mich., and began their life sentences.

            The action by the Ottawa County court was applauded nationally when many newspapers across the nation ran an article on the case.  “Speedy Justice” was the most common headline used above the stories.

            “If this rapid course of justice was oftener pursued, crime would be particularly less abundant,” a columnist for The National Magazine wrote. “Particularly in the city of New York, where crime is terribly on the increase. So tardy are the authorities (usually) in bringing to trial the rascals who commit the deeds.”

            But what never made the headlines was that real justice would not be served until seven years later when John Powers was pardoned on Sept. 26, 1864, under the recommendation of Judge George Martin, for a crime he did not commit.

            William Young, the confessed shooter of Crosier, stayed in prison, where he died in 1870.

            Judge Martin, who presided over the case, and went on to become Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, advocated Powers' release, appealing to Michigan Governor Austin Blair. While the case had been nationally applauded for its “swift justice,” Martin believed the jurors got it wrong.

            “The evidence in the case very clearly did not justify the verdict,” Martin wrote. “The verdict might very properly been of murder in the second degree. The main witness against the defendants was one (William) Cronum, a sailor, and his testimony is so entirely contradicted by other material facts that he ought not to be believed.”

            Cronum was the companion whom accompanied William Crosier when they attended the dance while ashore, and was present when they made their way back to their vessel at the moment Crosier was shot and killed.

            “(William) Young states, and has always stated, that he, himself, fired the fatal shot, and that Powers was not present,” Martin stated. “I am convinced of the truth of this.”

            Martin also wrote that before the shooting, Powers, a native of Ireland born in 1836, was known to be a “peaceable and quiet man.” Martin strongly expressed his confidence of Power's innocence.

            Powers was pardoned, and if any newspapers reported his vindication, they were local, not national stories that went to print in late October 1857.

            On Sept. 29, 1864, days after he was released from prison, Powers enlisted in the service to help the Union cause. He was a private in Company F the 28th Division of the Michigan Infantry until the conclusion of the Civil War. He returned to Muskegon after the war, leaving service on June 5, 1865.

            It would be nice to end Powers' story on an inspirational note. However, after seven years in prison and eight months fighting for the freedom of our nation, Powers enjoyed but five months of normal existence before dying on Nov. 11, 1865.

            A cause was not uncovered.

            A man who was once wrongly convicted in a heralded “speedy justice” case for murder was buried at St. Mary's Cemetery in Muskegon at age 29.

           

           

            

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