Vol. 34, No. 5
Heat of Passion: A Murder on the Streets of Leadville
by Frank Gibbard
This historical perspective was written by Frank Gibbard, a staff attorney with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and Secretary of the Tenth Circuit Historical Society. The views expressed herein are those of Frank Gibbard and not of the Tenth Circuit or its judges. Gibbard may be reached at Frank_Gibbard@ca10.uscourts.gov. This author thanks Dan Cordova of the Tenth Circuit library for research assistance with this article.
It seems possible that Charles M. Kent knew Thomas G. Bennett professionally before he killed him. The 1882 city directory for the City of Leadville identifies Kent as treasurer of the Globe Theater. Bennett is listed in the same directory as a musician. The third party in the triangle, the woman who called herself "Carrie Bennett," is not listed at all.
Before Charles Kent married her, Carrie had been Thomas Bennett’s mistress for about three years. She became Mrs. Charles Kent in April 1882. It was a significant month in Leadville, Colorado. Playwright Oscar Wilde had just arrived on his tour of the West. Leadville’s new baseball team, the Blues, played its first exhibition game in April, and was on its way to a spectacular season.
Mrs. Kent was having an exciting time as well. She did not let marriage slow her down. She continued to visit "low dance halls, frequented only by lewd women and men who desired to associate with them." [Kent v. People, 9 P. 852, 852 (Colo. 1886).] She "hired a room in a house of prostitution for the purpose of meeting men away from her home." [Id.] In sum, she "continued her dissolute life after marriage as before." [Id.]
At his murder trial, the testimony indicated that Charles Kent knew of his wife’s scandalous activities during their marriage. It is unclear whether he tried to curtail them. Perhaps he benefited financially from her exploits, or perhaps he was simply unable to change her behavior. One thing we do know: Kent and his new bride were known "to speak of and to each other in the most disrespectful style, using towards each other in public places the vilest epithets." [Id.] It seems the Kent marriage was not one made in heaven.
On July 3, 1882, Kent left home and went into downtown Leadville, intending to travel to Gunnison. We do not know the reason for the trip or why he found himself unable to complete it. When he returned home to Leadville, Kent found Thomas Bennett, Carrie’s former lover, in bed with his wife.
Kent did not react violently to this discovery; at least, not right away. Instead, he left and went down the street, where he got drunk and bought a revolver, not necessarily in that order. He later showed off the revolver to witnesses, stating there would be trouble the next time he and Bennett met.
The meeting he had prophesied occurred the next day. On July 4, 1882, witnesses saw Kent and Bennett engaged in a fistfight on Harrison Avenue, the street on which Leadville’s City Hall and the famous Delaware Hotel are now located. The two men shoved each other for a few minutes. Then Bennett broke away and ran, attempting to hide behind a bystander. The human shield did not save Bennett. Kent shot Bennett, who staggered across the street, collapsed on the opposite sidewalk, and died a few minutes later.
The issues at Kent’s murder trial centered on his state of mind when he killed Bennett. Kent’s defense relied on provocation, heat of passion, and self-defense. Witnesses testified that a pair of brass knuckles were found next to Bennett’s body, and that Kent had appeared visibly battered when they saw him in jail. In the end, the jury rejected Kent’s self-defense theory and convicted him of manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary.
On appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, Kent focused on the complex and confusing jury instructions given at his trial. Kent argued, among other things, that the instructions had improperly shifted the burden to him to prove self-defense. Although the Court found at least one of the instructions misleading, it concluded that in light of all the instructions, Kent had received a fair trial. [See id. at 854-55.] The Court clearly found the burden of proof issue troubling, however, for its opinion continued on for eleven more pages, during which it conducted a painstaking historical analysis of the common law principles that underlay the burden of proof problem in murder cases.
Tracing the law of presumption in murder cases back to Danish and Norman antecedents and to a case decided by the King’s Bench in the days of King James I, the Colorado Supreme Court concluded that once the state had proved an offense beyond a reasonable doubt, it was the defendant’s responsibility to produce evidence that would mitigate, justify, or excuse his conduct. [Id. at 863.] Warming to the topic, the Court went on to discuss such extrinsic defenses as alibi and insanity, neither of which had anything to do with Kent’s case. The bottom line was that Kent’s manslaughter conviction, which the court concluded was the result of the jury’s humane application of the reasonable doubt principle given the evidence against him, was allowed to stand. [Id. at 866.]
For more on the Leadville baseball team, the Blues, see Smith, "Baseball Champions of Colorado: The Leadville Blues of 1882," Journal of Sport History (Spring 1977) at 51-71. Oscar Wilde’s 1882 adventures in Leadville are described in Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York, NY: Vintage, 1988) at 204-05. There are a number of good, recent books concerning vintage prostitution in Colorado, including Mackell, Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls (Albuquerque, NM: Univ. of N.M. Press, 2004) and Secrest, Hell’s Belles: Denver’s Brides of the Multitudes (Aurora, Colo.: Hindsight Hist. Pubs., 1996), rev. ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Univ. Press of Colo., 2002).
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