Their instructor, Mark Weber, assigned term papers. One student used Dimsdale's 1866 account (The Vigilantes of Montana) of Sheriff Plummer, while another student used Mather and Boswell's book (Hanging the Sheriff) that questions the popularly accepted historical account of the Plummer era. The two reports portrayed dissimilar versions of Plummer and students began to question which version was correct. The idea for a trial was born.
Judge Barbara Brook was asked to preside over the trial, adult jury members were selected, and attorney Doug Smith advised the class on jurisprudence. Students were all assigned historical characters, which, had Plummer had a trial, most probably would have been called to testify. Martha Vail, Sidney Edgerton, Sam Hauser, Lucy Vedder, Captain James Williams, Buck Stinson, Wilbur Sanders, Henry Tilden, Haze Lyons, Joseph Swift, Long John Frank, and Hank Crawford. Electa Plummer and her famous husband, Henry Plummer, appeared in the courtroom dressed in period clothing.
Henry Plummer was represented by student attorneys Tracey Sewell as James Thurmond and Annaywn Ballou as John Ritchie. Prosecuting attorneys were Lars Dorseth as Wilbur Sanders and Dennis Bacon as Charles Baggs. Cord Thurston, a civil war reenactor, was the bailiff and Julie Lueck was the clerk of court. On the morning of May 7th, 1993 a packed courtroom waited to hear the evidence.
After lengthy jury instructions the trial began with a motion by the defending attorneys, "the defense objects to Mr. Sanders prosecuting for the State on the grounds that he is a vigilante and was partly responsible for the hanging of Red Yager, who would have been a prime witness in the defense of Henry Plummer." In response to the objection Sanders submitted a list of people that were present at the hanging of Red Yager. Sanders name was not included on the list and Judge Brook overruled the objection.
The cross examination of witnesses proceeded for much of the morning. Judge Brook called a recess after the prosecution had rested its case. The afternoon began with the defense submitting into evidence three lists of alleged road agents. The lists reportedly gave the names of road agents and had been supposedly dictated by Yager before his own execution. Each list of suspected road agents differed from the other two. One of the lists was from Dimsdale, another by Langford, and the third was by X-Beidler, executioner for the Vigilantes. The prosecution objected to the lists stating that only Beidler was present so only his list should go into evidence. After a lengthy side-bar, Judge Brook ruled that only Beidler's list could be submitted.
This was a blow to Plummer's defense team that wanted to use the contradicting lists to prove that Plummer had been framed by political foes.
Defense attorneys had an hour to convince the jury of the innocence of their client through the continued examination of witnesses. After the defense rested the State closed with an aggressive statement against the defendant.
The State in its closing said that although the defense had painted Plummer as a tea-toting nice guy, he was in fact a cold blooded murderer. From California to Idaho, to Montana, Plummer had killed. The jury was reminded that Henry Tilden was stopped and searched by Plummer and two other men. Tilden recognized Plummer and was so afraid of the sheriff after the incident he felt a need to carry a gun. Prosecuting attorney, Wilbur Sanders, concluded by saying that "his (Plummer's) trail of crime had to be stopped at the gallows."
Defense attorney, John Ritchie made closing statements for Plummer's defense. Ritchie stated that the State had not done their job in proving that Plummer was guilty of being a road agent. "They are sorely lacking the evidence they need to hang Sheriff Plummer. The reason they lack evidence is because there isn't any to be had." Ritchie continued by saying, "A group of guys get together at the lodge one night and discuss the state of the territories and decide there has been enough crime and they are going to do something about it. The more they talk the more they excite themselves and before you know it anyone that is not a member of their little club is a suspect." Ritchie asked the jury for a verdict of innocent of the crime of being a road agent.
Judge Brook gave further instructions to the jury and dismissed them to the jury room. After an hour and a half of jury deliberations a verdict was finally handed to Judge Brook . A crowded courtroom had listened to over three hours of testimony and waited an hour and a half for a decision. A decision that, had the times been different, could have changed history. The spectators in the room wanted a verdict and they waited silently as the Judge read.
"In the Justice Court of Madison County, State of Montana, before Judge Barbara Brook, Cause No. 1-CR-64. The State of Montana, plaintiff vs. Henry Plummer defendant. Please stand Sheriff Plummer and face the jury. We the jury, duly impaneled and sworn to try the issues in the above-entitled action, unanimously find the defendant..." A long pause followed and justice, 129 years after, hung on the next breath of Judge Barbara Brook. "Sheriff Plummer, the jury is unable to render a unanimous decision as required by law. You are free to go."
"You are free to go." The packed courtroom and jury applauded the efforts of these young gifted students. Regardless of the verdict they had done their job well. They had done their job so well that 72 newspapers, historical journals, radio, and television of ten Western states carried the story. Jury foreman, Pat Bradley, a judge herself, said that the jury took their job very seriously. "If they had been in the room (jury room) for two weeks they would not have been able to come up with an unanimous decision."
Two months after the trial, Montana's pardon board received what Executive Secretary Craig Thomas described as "an unusual request and the first of its kind as far as I am aware." This extraordinary document delivered to the Board of Pardons was an application submitted by a man who has been dead for 129 years! The application was signed by R.E. Mather, dated 1 July 1993. Two other letters were submitted by Frederick Morgan, a publisher of Western history books, and by Jack Burrows, an author and Western history professor.
Montana Governor, Marc Racicot, assured petitioners that the pardon would receive prompt attention by the Board of Pardons. In August, 1993, the Board of Pardons responded by saying that since Plummer was never convicted by a court, the panel could not review a request for clemency.
For a copy of the 17 page transcript of the trial complete with evidence and newspaper articles send $15.00 to Mark Weber, 254 Tuke Lane, Twin Bridges, MT 59754. E-mail at Plummerh@aol.com