A Martyred Judge

May 10, 2011

Judge John Elliott of the Kentucky Court of Appeals wrote the opinion of Buford v. Guthriein 1879.  At that time, the Court of Appeals was Kentucky’s highest court.  When he authored that case, little did he know that he was signing his own death warrant.

Old KY State House in Frankfort

Just a few days later, on March 26, 1879, he and fellow judge Thomas Hines were making their way back from the court room in the Old State House to their lodging at the Capitol Hotel in downtown Frankfort.   As they approached the hotel on Ann Street, a deranged Thomas Buford stepped up to him with a loaded shotgun.  There was a quick, cordial exchange of conversation and then Buford shot him.  Judge Elliott fell dead upon the sidewalk.

By all accounts, Judge John Elliott was a very good man.  He was born in Floyd County, Kentucky and had served in both the state legislature and U.S. Congress.  He was one of only a hand full of people to have served both in the U.S. Congress and the Congress of the Confederate States of America when he served in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War.  Before reaching the state’s highest court, he had been circuit judge of Bath County.  His family was plagued with an incredible amount of violence.  Judge Elliott’s father had killed another man; one of his brothers was killed during the Civil War; another brother was killed by another brother; and yet another brother had gone insane and shot himself.

Just a couple of weeks before the murder, Judge Elliott had issued an opinion wherein the state’s highest court had ruled against Buford.  Elliott had written the opinion.  Actually, it was against the estate of his dead sister.  Buford had been acting as the administrator.  It was a complicated land deal in which his sister lost her property.  Although his sister had died during the action, Buford still perceived the adverse ruling as being directed against her.  Apparently, he believed that the stress of the litigation was what had killed his sibling.  In explaining the killing of Judge Elliott, he said that his sister had been robbed and murdered by the decision of the court.  A short time before he shot Judge Elliott, he had gone to her grave and sworn to avenge her cause.

In his meandering written confession to the crime, the disturbed Buford proclaimed how his first intention was to kill Court of Appeals Judge William S. Pryor.  He decided against killing Pryor “because of his children.” He had hard feelings towards Pryor because he thought that judge “knew how my sister had been wronged and could have controlled the decision.”  In truth, because of Judge Pryor’s prior knowledge about the case, the jurist had appropriately and ethically recused himself from sitting on the case.  He wasn’t even involved in the decision.

After the shooting, Buford immediately gave up his weapon and peacefully—even cordially—surrendered to the sheriff.  In fact, he had taken his hat off of his head and placed it under the head of the dying judge on the ground.

It soon became apparent to all that Thomas Buford had serious mental problems.  He “wasn’t right.”  Although quite educated and a solid citizen before, he had become so possessed by his sister’s lawsuit that he had lost his reason.

View from Capital Cemetery Overlooking Frankfort

Frankfort and the entire state were shocked by the tragedy.  Governor James B. McCreary issued a proclamation declaring both Elliot’s virtues and the profound sadness felt by his loss.  All state offices were closed the afternoon of his funeral.

The killing of Judge John Elliott on that gusty March afternoon created one of those staggering tragedies from which we as a people are left bewildered and frustrated.  A very good man and dedicated public servant had been savagely and senselessly struck down in broad daylight on a public street.  Yet, when the dust had settled and we reached out to grab the guilty culprit, we were staring at a lunatic—a person who was babbling both hatred and kindness toward his victim; making sense of it all and yet not making sense of it all.

In the trial of Thomas Buford, the Commonwealth of Kentucky was faced once again with the enduring question of what we do with people who do terrible things, but who have lost their senses to the point that it is not really the person’s own free will but the demons within the bubbling cauldron of his diseased mind.  When is a person crazy or when is that person just evil?  Or more perplexing, when is he both?

The murder case was moved to Owen County and finally went to trial in January of 1881. Numerous witnesses, including many prominent men, testified that they thought the defendant was insane.  Forty-four witnesses in all were called by the defense, almost all going to his insanity.  His lawyer, George Curtis, made a magnificent closing argument on behalf of his client.  He reminded the jury of the law of insanity at that time, which is basically unchanged to this day.  “You must remember, also, gentlemen of the jury that the legal test is ability to comprehend the moral character of the act committed and the power of will to govern one’s action in obedience to the judgment.”

The jury found Thomas Buford not guilty by reason of insanity.  The judge ordered that he be taken to the asylum in Anchorage, Kentucky.  Totally disconnected from reality, Buford airily protested that it was a waste of time and that he had “rather be out hunting and fishing.”  Not long after he arrived, Buford escaped from the mental institution and fled to Indiana.  That state refused to recognize our extradition efforts since he had not been convicted.

Today, the martyred judge lies sleeping in the Capitol Cemetery which overlooks the Kentucky River and the picturesque city of Frankfort.  The words on his monument proclaim his lasting legacy: “Assassinated for having done his duty as a Judge.”

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