A Queens Judge Considers The Role Of The Jury In
Snyder is buried in a simple grave in the historic Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The
records on file at the cemetery list her last known address Ossining, New York.
Except for the informed, the name Ossining does not give any clues about the
circumstances of her death at 11:06 a.m. on January 12, 1928.
Her downfall began less than a year earlier when, on March 20, 1927, she and her lover
brutally murdered her husband Albert in their home on a quiet street in Queens Village.
She crushed his skull with a sash weight and finished him off with chloroform as her
daughter lay sleeping in an adjoining room.
Less than three months after the murder, on Friday the 13, she was convicted by an
allmale jury in the old Long Island City courthouse. With more than 1,000 people
jammed shoulder to shoulder into the 200-seat ceremonial courtroom, and thousands more
outside, the jury rendered the guilty verdict.
They had deliberated for only 100 minutes, which was not even enough time for the two
cigarettes and lunch that were paid for by the state. That was the way things were done in
New York at that time.
The year1927 was a different time. The New York Times cost two cents. Mae West
was sentenced to 10 days in jail for obscenity. The first woman juror in New York would
not serve until 10 years later and the case of guilt against Snyder was so overwhelming it
wouldnt have made a difference if 12 women served on the jury.
Shortly before she was executed at Sing-Sing in Ossining, Ruth found religion. We would
now call her a bornagain Christian. She walked willingly into the death chamber,
escorted by prison matrons Lillian Hickey and Mary Mann, both in tears.
Thousands flocked to her funeral and police barricades were set up to ward off the
throngs that yearned to see her burial spot. Ruth was a phenomenon in 1927. Not only did
she murder her older husband to legitimize her adulterous affair, she did so in a time
when those things were not spoken of in proper company.
And, the trial bordered on comedy due to the blundering ineptitude in carrying out the
How Far We Have Come
If Ruth is in
that place that some call heaven, a place different than Queens Village in 1927, she has
just made a new friend Karla Faye Tucker. They share this always questionable,
born-again-about-to-be-executed Christian killers syndrome. They both give credence
to the belief that there are no atheists in foxholes or on death row.
In 1927, Queens County had a half dozen daily newspapers, only 500,000 residents, about
a bakers dozen male killers and no televisions sets.
Yet this case took on a life of its own. It was a modernday soap opera, full of
sordid thrills. It filled a need to satisfy the occasional void in life. It was a trial
that appealed to the prurient interests that a post-Victorian, pre-depression society
could justify absorbing in the guise of the pursuit of justice. It presented an uncommon
experience of a sordid love affair, with quite frequent dalliances at the posh Waldorf
Astoria. No fading lily was Ruth Snyder. This was the most covered trial of the decade.
Ruth Snyder and Karla Faye Tucker came about their demise as the end result of two
different judicial processes. In 1927 New York, the mere conviction for Murder in the
first degree mandated the death penalty. You did the act, you died. In Karlas case
the jury had to go through a process whereby they decided life or death after initially
determining guilt. In 1972, in an ambiguous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed
mandatory death such as was done in Ruths case.
In 1976 a different Supreme Court gave life to the death penalty as long as juries
rationalized their decision. In other words, some would be executed and some would not.
Karla Faye met that test, Ruth didnt have to take it. It doesnt make a lot of
difference when you die.
Is Death A Jurys Duty?
The trouble with juries deciding life or death based on extraneous facts is that we
dont always see a consistency. So when the jury in the Oklahoma bombing case said
that the actions of Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeighs partner, didnt warrant the
death penalty as McVeighs did, a lot of people were alarmed, confused and saddened.
The same 168 people were dead in the largest mass killing in our countrys history.
The nuances of the degrees of culpability do not mean much to surviving victims, an
hysterical media, or a nation hell bent on revenge.
Juries are not supposed to let us down. Their mission is to do our bidding, especially
in a case of the magnitude of Oklahoma. It is this phenomenon of a jury not rendering a
death penalty, when a watching world expects that it will, that should give us pause to
consider if we shouldnt return to a format that puts discretion in the hands of one
judge or a majority of a three-judge panel, once guilt has been determined.
When the Nichols case denied to many Americans that ounce of revenge, it stung at the
very heart of our blind obsession with death. And we do not forgive or forget easily. We
have an enormous capacity to be unforgiving. Frank Keating, the governor of Oklahoma,
showed little restraint in his contempt when he announced, ostensibly for all Oklahomans,
that the 12 talesmen "failed in their responsibility as a jury."
Robert Macy, the local District Attorney in Oklahoma County, announced that the
forewoman of the jury was not qualified to sit on an Oklahoma jury as she was
"anti-government." Macy vowed to obtain the death penalty for Nichols with a new
local prosecution in Oklahoma regardless of the fact that Nichols has already been
sentenced to life.
In promising a new trial Macy has sent a clear message to all prospective jurors,
choose death or be publicly admonished. A Hobsons choice.
Listening to him I expected a call for a grand jury investigation of all those jurors
who had "failed in their responsibility." Can Kenneth Starr be far behind?
Jurors should be partners in a process, not pawns of politicians or supplicants to
media hysteria. They should not be compelled to work at this very serious business of
death under the glare of TV lights or the spectacle of public approbation on the one hand,
or scorn on the other.
While jurors are partners in this process, they should not at the same time be
scapegoats for the shortcomings of an imperfect system in a very imperfect society. Is it
not better for all of us if we fault a judge rather than our neighbor for any perceived
Kill McVeigh, Nichols, Ruth and Karla Faye if you want, but do it with some dignity. It
has reached the point that in our preoccupation with death the penalty overshadows our
rationale for it. With some states competing for the annual record of executions, should
we expect Texas to remove its "Welcome to Texas" signs at the state borders and
replace them with "We killed more in 97 sign?"
Ruth Snyder wanted her
husband dead. No, not just dead really, really dead. The trouble was, she just
couldnt get it right.
Once, when Albert Snyder had a cold, Ruth gave him Mercury tablets in place of
antibiotics. But Albert didnt die his cold just went away. She poisoned him
nine times. Albert was poison-proof.
By all outward appearances, Ruth and Albert were a normal couple. They lived quietly
with their nine-year-old daughter in a modest home at 93-27 222 St. in Queens Village.
And, oh, Ruth had affairs mostly with married men.
Ruths most passionate amoré, in 1927, was a girdle salesman from New Jersey.
Judd Grey, 34, spent long, luscious afternoons with Ruth at the Waldorf Astoria. In fact,
thats where the pair were said to have cooked up the scheme to kill Albert. The
scheme that worked.
On March 20, 1927, Ruths daughter came home to find her mother bound and gagged,
lying on the floor of a hallway outside Ruths bedroom. Albert was dead in bed, wads
of chloroform-laced cotton stuffed in his nose, and picture wire cinched around his neck.
Ruth told police that a man, "apparently a foreigner," broke into the house.
Ruth sobbed uncontrolably as she related the tale of Alberts murder to police.
But they were skeptical. After all, the detectives found Ruths "stolen"
jewelry under her bed, and the house showed no signs of forced entry.
Reporter Damon Runyon covered the trial, called it the "Dumbbell Murder."
Why? "It was that dumb," he said.
Ruth Snyder was one of the first women to die in the electric chair.
As long as juries decide the penalty, the issue for prosecutors is not to obtain a
conviction on disputed facts, but selection of jurors who are death penalty certified. A
nuance that is missed by so many is that death is different. No longer is the goal of the
prosecution the mere conviction of the defendant. Cases in which the death penalty is
sought are only those cases in which the proof is overwhelming and conviction a certainty.
The only issue is death. Jurors become pawns for the goals and agendas of others.
Until the execution-at-any-cost mentality ceases we must use our collective experience
and judgment to remove from this process the bullying aspects of these life or death
decisions. When trials are coupled with the inevitable political considerations attendant
death penalty cases, justice is trashed. We are capable of better.
With the return to New York of a death penalty and the coupling with it of a process
that makes the jury the final arbiter of death or life, we have insured that no one will
be executed in New York until deep into the next millennium, if ever.
New proposals in New York to have juries consider the grief and the impact upon
relatives of the murder victim just further ensures that we will not have a realistic
death penalty as we approach the twenty-first century. Such a proposal is excellent
politics but profoundly poor social policy.
If such legislation is successful, we will have established as state policy that
victims are divided into classes.
It is to say that you will more likely be executed if you kill someone who was of more
value to us as a society. This is not and never should be a jury consideration.
If insist we must on the need for a death penalty, death should be uniform for the
crime, not the impact it has on a society.
In death penalty cases, so much is at stake for both sides. The state will just be
compounded further if we allow juries to consider the quality of life of the deceased or
the contribution that person made to society.
Jurors perform an often arduous task. They should be viewed neither as heroes nor
goats, but with respect. Our appetites for revenge should not be refreshed on the longing
for death. You are not a better juror for voting death nor a lesser one for voting for,
life in prison. Jurors should never be subject to a process that allows their loyalty and
integrity to be put in question or to become the subject of public inquiry.
Judicial determination of the penalty will put that to rest.