Saturday, October 1, 2011

Problem #5 Territory vs. Rehberg

For this week, our professor assigned us a criminal suit, from the Territory of Montana, 1885. Our assignment for last week also concerned legal documents from late 19th century Montana, and it also involved a sad family saga. However, the two assignments are quite different. For one thing, this week we are dealing with a criminal suit rather than a civil suit. Secondly, we were given a paucity of documentation rather than the quite extensive variety of documents we were given for the previous assignment. While of course we are graduate students who are perfectly capable of seeking out further documentation ourselves, the questions Dr. Petrik handed out for this problem deal quite specifically with the document; and more to the point, they ask us to make judgments within the context of only having this documentation available.

Unlike the previous assignment, it is not difficult to figure out what happened, although it is quite difficult to read some of this testimony as dispassionately as it was given. Somebody severly abused eleven year-old Clara Rehberg, badly enough that she died from the injuries. But only after suffering for several days, under the ostensible care of medical professionals and legal authorities who tended to treat her as a case study rather than as a young girl no different from the daughters, nieces, or sisters these men must have known in their lives. For whatever reason, her father, Edward Rehberg, was arrested and charged with having beaten her, causing the wounds that she died from. The document we were provided with consists of (some of) the cross-examination of some witnesses by both the prosecutor and the defending attorney. The witnesses are the members of the Rehberg household, as well as several doctors and another official whose exact capacity is not defined. We were not provided with any other documents to provide context; and as noted above, it seemed that the assignment was to interpret this document as well as we could without corraborating documentation.

The first witness we hear from is Emma Rehberg, the nineteen year-old older sister of Clara Rehberg; she states that at the time of Clara's death, she was living on her father's ranch with her father, Edward Rehberg, her stepmother Louisa Rehberg, Clara herself, her sister Bertha and brother, Emil, and a hired hand named Joe Tiebow. This information is never corrected or revised, and the defense does not object to it, so we can assume that it is correct. So we know that the Rehbergs lived on a ranch, and that the children's mother was gone and that their father had remarried.

Emma gives as much of an outline of the days events--the Sunday when Edward brought Clara to a hospital in Helena--as she is allowed to. I say "allowed to" because the defense had evidently managed to constrict the allowed range of inquiry to an extent which seems both arbitrary and contrary to the interests of justice. Most notably, the defense argued that the events of the day before Sunday (when the actual abuse might actually have happened) were off-limits; but most stunning was the successful objection that Emma should not be allowed to identify who beat Clara, or indeed to even discuss the alleged abuse at all.

Given that Emma is only allowed to give a basic chronology of who was doing what when--banal matters such as preparing and eating meals, stacking hay, milking, etc.--the picture soon emerges that her father was outdoors all day stacking hay with Joe Tiebow, while Clara was often alone with Louisa.

Further testimony from younger sister Bertha essentially confirms this, although once again the sister of the victim is not allowed to answer any questions about Saturday.

By this point, two other observations about Clara have come out; that she was not in good health, and that on the day of question she helped prepare dinner but did not eat herself. Indeed, her life seemed to consist of staying in the house to assist her stepmother with household work, even though it seems that all agreed she was in poor health, probably physically disabled to some point. Another thing which is clear is how stark and hard life on the Rehberg ranch was. The sisters were kept busy and saw little or nothing of each other during the day. Clara, an eleven year-old girl with physical disabilities, spent her day in the house doing domestic chores, even on days when she wasn't able to eat.

It is interesting that the defense was able to prevent the prosecution from calling Louisa Rehberg to the stand on the grounds that she was the spouse of the accused, but they allowed both Emma and Bertha to testify, albeit within constrained grounds. Their testimony is much more rigidly structured than that of the male witnesses, including Joe Tiebow, who comes across as not terribly bright although his testimony does seem fairly consistent, despite implications that he had 'discussed' his testimony with the accused ahead of the trial. Tiebow is given a great deal more latitude, and interestingly the prosecutor barely bothers cross-examining him at all. Admittedly, this may due in part to the fact that Joe Tiebow had not lived on the ranch for several months, so there would not have been any grounds to test the defenses willingness to continue challenging extraneous testimony. Yet his memory seems sloppy, and his understanding of questions is at times shaky; surely an able prosecutor might have tried to find a way to trip him up. But this male witness is afforded more deference by the prosecutor than the two sisters of the deceased were by the defense.

Interestingly, when Edward Rehberg is called as a witness, he is not asked--by either side--at length about his movements or actions that day. He simply denies having beat Clara with a hard object (including possibly a wooden shoe--and important detail, as seen below), or having kicked her or "bruised her flesh." Upon cross-examination, he admits to having "whipped" her "somewhat with the hand", but not more than his other kids, none of whom he "whipped hard." This assertion is neither challenged nor elaborated by the prosecution. The admission that he periodically struck his physically disabled preteen daughter was evidently not worth looking into.

The rest of the testimony consists of several doctors. Dr. Van Holzshuher was the physician who received Clara at the hospital in Helena; his medical opinion (that she was severely beaten and burned, and that she most likely died from blood poisoning due to infection) seems sound enough, in that three other physicians go on to essentially validate his diagnosis. What is most striking is that, by his own account, he essentially left her alone for an entire day simply because she wanted to be left alone. He waited an entire day before asking for Dr. Steele, who seemed to have more expertise with burns. The bulk of their testimony, once her condition is established, is a debate over how long prior to her hospitalization the beating probably occured, and how long she would have been able to be mobile after suffering her horrific injuries. This is where we get the best idea on the extent of Clara's disabilities.

I don't know much about 19th century medical practices, but this seems both strange and more than a little inhumane. There does seem to be a class bias at work here, one which comes out even more later when Clara's dying declaration is taken--the men present seem more concerned with her moral character and her understanding of Christian concepts of the afterlife, than with her unambiguous statement that her stepmother whipped her, beat her with a wooden shoe, and poured boiling water on her. This is where the document ends.

What are we to make of this? One thing is clear; for reasons probably best explained by blatant class bias, the powers that be treat the Rehberg family much differently than a respectable, middle-class family would be treated. I cannot imagine a "proper" girl from a properly domesticated household being left overnight to suffer her injuries simply because she told a doctor to leave her alone. The examination of Clara sounds like the work of veterinarians more than compassionate physicians. And there is no explanation why Edward was arrested, when he was the one who brought Clara in, and when no witnesses can explain when he might have committed the abuse. Yet Louisa, who was alone with Clara away from prying eyes, working in the kitchen--presumably the only place in the house where there would have been boiling water--was even spared from testifying, let alone being accused. It seems that the respectable powers that be held a man who put his daughters to work the way Edward Rehberg did was automatically suspect.

As for questions about how this all affected the jury; I did cheat a little bit. I found out that this case was appealed, and the text of the appeal makes it clear that both Edward and Louisa were found guilty; it seems that they were both actually indicted but this is not at all clear from the partial testimony we were provided. This makes the successful objection to having Louisa testify because she was Edward's wife even more confusing, unless there were two distinct proceedings, one for each of them. At any rate, as seen in this successful appeal from the Montana Supreme Court, the handling of the case and the indictment raised some eyebrows.

Notably, they asked to be tried individually for the retrial. It seems that while the testimony we studied made it clear that the stepmother was the more likely culprit, the absence of evidence against Edward did not exonerate him.

Ultimately, Edward either was able to convince a jury that he was not guilty, or his sentence for manslaughter only kept him in prison for a few short years, because in 1895 he was living at his ranch, and he was in trouble again:

Keyser Vs. Rehberg, Supreme Court of Montana, July 22, 1895

The deposition made reference to other hired hands leaving or perhaps being driven away by Edward; the Rehbergs may have been victims of class bias, but there seem to have been sound reason to distrust the heads of the household; all the more reason, then, that Clara should have been treated with more kindness and understanding.

I found Edward in the 1900 census, still living in Lewis and Clark County; the census taker only noted himself and his son living at the address. We can only hope that Emma and Bertha found greener pastures elsewhere.

One last note: Dr. Petrik challenged us to find a connection between this case and contemporary Washington, DC. I believe I have found it: current Montana at-large Congressman, and Senate candidate Denny Rehberg is a a fifth-generation Montana rancher. If I am correct, it should not be any surprise that this is not part of his family history he is particularly eager to dwell on.


Anonymous said...

Why do you think that the testimony for the defense, combined with the deathbed statement by Clara was not enough to convince the court that Rehberg was innocent? I found it very interesting how the husband and wife chose to receive separate trials.

Kirk Johnson said...

That's a great question--I really don't have any idea, other than to guess that there were patriarchal assumptions about the role of the father; i.e, 'what sort of man allows his wife to mistreat his daughter like that under his own roof,' or something to that effect. But I honestly don't know. Clearly, when it came to the retrial, they decided the risk of hanging seperately was a safer bet than sticking together.

Paula said...

I hadn't picked up that the males received a different tone of questioning than the females--I'm going to have look at that part again.
And I wondered as well about Louisa not testifying.

Mehr said...

It's interesting that you suggest Clara possibly being disabled; I'd not thought along those lines. It might explain a bit more---Clara constantly being underfoot and around the house. Perhaps Louisa got frustrated to no end one day and beat her horribly.

Jim Esson said...

Nice job finding the DC Rehberg connection; it would certainly be interesting if there is an actual familial connection. I also liked how you located the documents related to Edward's later legal issues, as they provided an intriguing additional perspective into the personality of this individual