murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

You Can't Predict Death


by Glen Peggie

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Crack Detective | May 1949 | Vol. 10 | No. 2

Est. Read Time: 2 mins

Another true fact story about the famous criminal lawyer, William F. Howe — and the man who got away with arson.

One of the most ingenious escapes-from-punishment-through-a-loophole-in-the-law ever to be recorded was worked late in the preceding century by a man named William F. Howe, who was easily one of the most successful criminal lawyers in American history. It made Howe more famous than ever, and caused a great state to alter its statutes.

Early one winter morning, a professional arsonist named Owen Reilly was nabbed in the act of setting fire to a row of stores on New York’s lower East Side. Reilly had been earning his living for a number of years by performing this service for eager storekeepers and building owners who felt that they’d get more from the insurance companies than they’d earn from their properties, and he’d always gotten away with it. This time, though, he was caught red-handed—and it looked as though he was due for a striped suit.

The penalty for arson was then life imprisonment. In a panic, Reilly scraped up as much money as possible and hired high-priced William F. Howe as his attorney.

The first thing Howe did was to study the evidence in the case and decide that it showed his client to be overwhelmingly guilty. He went into a long, careful huddle with his law books—and then, sadly and with defeat plain on his features, he approached the district attorney and the judge assigned to the case.

He heaved a deep sigh. “This is one time I’ve got to admit I’m licked,” he said. “Caught in the act! What’s a defense attorney supposed to be—a miracle worker?’

He shrugged his shoulders, and turned to the district attorney. “Look,” he said, “there’s no point in spending the State’s money for lengthy trials and arguments, and there’s no point in wasting my time any more than necessary. If you’ll change the charge from committed arson to attempted arson, we’ll agree to plead guilty. That’s a fair enough compromise: you’ll save trial expenses, and my client will get off with a lighter sentence.”

Howe was famous for his amazing courtroom tricks, and the district attorney should have known better than to agree. But this looked like a simple enough proposition, and a way to save the State some money—the D.A. agreed. Shortly thereafter, the trial judge concurred.

Owen Reilly pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted arson, and, after due proceedings, was asked to stand and receive sentence. It was then that Howe sprung his bombshell.

“Just a minute, Your Honor,” Howe said, rushing up to the bench. “Reilly needn’t bother standing—he’s a free man.”

The judge and the district attorney stared at the criminal lawyer in astonishment. “Have you gone crazy?” the D.A. snapped.

“Not at all,” Howe said, blandly.

“I’ve just been reading my law books, that’s all…”

“If you’ll read yours, Mr. District Attorney, you’ll find that the specified sentence for any crime attempted but not actually committed is half the maximum imposed by the law for the actual commission of the crime. But the maximum penalty for the commission of arson is life imprisonment.”

His eyes swept the courtroom, and he grinned impudently. “I defy you, Mr. D.A., or you, Your Honor, or anyone else in the courtroom, to measure half a man’s life.” He waved an arm. “Scripture tells us that we knoweth not the day nor the hour of our departure. Will you, then, sentence the prisoner to half a minute or half the days of Methuselah?” There was a moment of dead silence, then the District Attorney rushed over to the judge and began to whisper frantically. But it was no use: the judge had to admit that the measurement of half a man’s life span was beyond the court’s powers.

Owen Reilly left the courtroom a free man, and William F. Howe had performed another miracle of legal juggling. Shortly afterwards, the newspapers carried a story to the effect that the New York State Legislature had altered the arson statutes and placed a specific time-sentence on the crime of attempted arson.