The Trial of James Nutt

Garnering even more attention than Nicholas Dukes’ case, the trial of James Nutt involved several distinguished members of the legal profession. For the side of the commonwealth, District Attorney Isaac Johnson, John Boyle, the son of Congressman Boyle, and R.H. Lindsey prosecuted James Nutt. The defense team included members such as William Playford and A.D. Boyd, who previously worked to prosecute Nicholas Dukes. Added to this team were Marshall Swartzhelder, a prominent lawyer from Pittsburgh, Major Brown, and Senator Daniel Voorhees. Voorhees was the United States district attorney for Indiana from 1858-1861 and served in the U.S. Congress intermittingly from 1861 to 1897.

The trial started on December 5, 1883. Almost all potential jury members showed bias towards James Nutt, with only two men making it through to the jury box. Playford then asked for a change of venue. On January 12, 1884, Nutt was transported to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the trial would be held. This time the jurors consisted of men from all types of professions, but as for politics, eleven were Republicans and one was a Democrat. Nutt pleaded “not guilty.”

The prosecution had eyewitness accounts of the killing and the confession from the defendant, but needed to convince the jury that the murder was premeditated and not impulsive. They called witnesses who testified to hearing target practice shots at the Nutt residence. Also, the coroner testified that James Nutt was carrying two loaded pistols at the time of Dukes’ murder, but only needed one to do the job.

James Nutt had apologized for the death of the innocent bystander, but as for killing Dukes, he “couldn’t help it.” The defense argued that Nutt killed N.L. Dukes in a fit of insanity—a claim that was corroborated by several doctors. They had proof that two of James’ relatives were certifiably insane, which showed a family history of mental illness. However, his attorneys told the court that he should not be sent away to a mental facility because he was no longer a danger. The object that drove him to madness was now gone.

On January 22, 1884, the jury came to their conclusion and announced the verdict: Not guilty.