AuthorAcker, James R.


Law and justice are imperfect companions. (1) What the law permits, or demands, is not invariably just. (2) What justice embraces may be foreign to law. (3) Their occasionally discordant interplay is evident throughout People v. Schmidt, (4) the tragic and fascinating early twentieth-century New York case that elicited Judge Benjamin Cardozo's exposition of the deific decree as a basis for legal insanity and culminated with Hans Schmidt's execution for the murder of Anna Aumuller. (5) The borders of law and justice are blurred at multiple junctures of this case, including the failed insanity defense presented at Schmidt's trial, the resolution of his troubled appeal, and Governor Charles Whitman's denial of clemency to remove the last official barrier standing between Schmidt and the electric chair. (6) Left lingering are challenging questions about whether Schmidt's conviction and execution should be considered wrongful, either in law or as viewed through the prism of justice.

Wrongful convictions are produced in courts of law. (7) They occur when factually innocent persons are adjudged guilty of a crime. (8) As such, they reflect an objective truth: an individual who was found guilty of a crime did not commit it. (9) Although wrongful conviction and miscarriage of justice are often used interchangeably, the terms are not synonymous. (10)

Miscarriages of justice are broader in scope and more elusive conceptually than wrongful convictions. (11) Within courtrooms, wrongful acquittals no less than wrongful convictions can fairly be considered miscarriages of justice. (12) And while justice might be served, or disserved, in a court of law, it is not so narrowly confined. Moreover, unlike a wrongful conviction, a miscarriage of justice is not reducible to a fact, but is instead an abstraction, one that is essentially normative rather than empirical in nature. (13)

Through Judge Cardozo, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that Hans Schmidt's murder trial was tainted by an error of law: the instructions delivered to the jury on the insanity defense were fatally flawed. (14) Yet relying on Schmidt's duplicity--his post-conviction admission that his professed insanity had been a sham--the court declined to grant him a new trial. (15) This, despite the fact that the explanation accompanying Schmidt's admission, if fully credited, would almost certainly have negated the basis for his murder conviction and death sentence and left him guilty of manslaughter only. (16) In short, had they been presented at the outset of his case, relied on, and accepted, either of Schmidt's representations standing alone--(a) his claim at trial that his insanity rendered him not criminally responsible although his acts otherwise qualified as murder, (17) or (b) his post-conviction claim that he was not insane, but his offense was manslaughter and not murder (18)--would have spared him from conviction for capital murder and execution. Considered in hindsight, those twin scenarios combined to nullify one another and leave his murder conviction and death sentence undisturbed. Then, after Schmidt failed to secure relief in court, his plea for executive clemency--a request grounded in justice or mercy, rather than law--was rejected by Governor Whitman, (19) the same person who, prior to his election as governor, served as the district attorney in charge of Schmidt's prosecution. (20)

The case is complicated, vexing, and tragic. If the question is whether Hans Schmidt's conviction and execution were defensible in law and also consistent with justice, the answers, at a minimum, are debatable.


    A. A Killing and a Failed Insanity Defense

    On September 5, 1913, eighteen-year-old Mary Bann and her eleven-year-old brother spied a bulky bundle floating in the Hudson River near their Woodcliff, New Jersey home, opposite 96th Street in Manhattan. (21) Curious about its contents, they retrieved it and removed the surrounding paper and wire packaging. (22) Inside they found "[t]he upper part of a woman's body." (23) The grisly discovery bore no head, arms, or legs. (24) The police were summoned and they collected the encapsulated torso and brought it to a physician for examination. (25) The doctor estimated that the body part had likely been in the water not more than two days. (26) He ventured that the dismemberment "had been done so skillfully that it might be the work of a surgeon." (27) Newspapers reported sensationally about the "Hudson River mystery," (28) while additional bundled body parts, which appeared to fit together, like the pieces of a puzzle, emerged downriver over the next few days. (29)

    Following leads developed through the manufacturing tag on a pillowcase used in the bundling of the dismembered body, the police linked the discovered items to an apartment located at 68 Bradhurst Avenue in Upper Manhattan. (30) Investigators determined that the unit had been rented to "H. Schmidt." (31) They staked out the premises, hoping that its occupant would soon appear. (32) On September 13, accompanied by fellow New York City Police officers, Officer Frank Casassa climbed the fire escape to the third-floor apartment and pried open a locked window to gain entry. (33) Inside, the officers found a blood-stained blanket, a knife, a saw, wrapping paper, twine, wire, women's clothing, and indications that a cleaning agent had been applied to bloodied flooring. (34) They also discovered several letters addressed to Anna Aumuller, care of Father Braun, the Pastor of St. Boniface's Church, at 304 East 47th Street. (35) The police learned from Father Braun that Anna Aumuller had worked at St. Boniface as a housekeeper but then left for a similar position at St. Joseph's Church on 125th Street. (36) Father Braun also informed the police that Father Hans Schmidt had previously been in residence at St. Boniface but that he had departed more than a year earlier to serve as a priest at St. Joseph's. (37)

    Schmidt was born in Germany in 1881. (38) He was ordained to the priesthood in 1906 and served briefly in various parishes throughout Germany before settling in Munich. (39) He there developed a reputation for mental instability and ran into trouble with the law. (40) He was arrested for forging graduation certificates for students who had not successfully completed their studies and as a consequence was ordered to undergo psychological examination. (41) Schmidt was diagnosed as suffering from a "diseased mental condition." (42) He was admitted to a facility in Wurttemberg, where he underwent treatment consisting primarily of "the cold water cure." (43) Several of his relatives had similarly experienced mental health difficulties, some of whom had taken their own lives. (44)

    Schmidt left Germany and arrived in the United States in 1909, first serving as a priest in Louisville, Kentucky. (45) He subsequently took a position in a church in Trenton, New Jersey, then relocated to St. Boniface's in late 1910, where he met Anna Aumuller. (46) He moved to his assistant pastor position at St. Joseph's in November 1912. (47) Aumuller was born in Hungary and emigrated to the United States from Germany as a child. (48) She was just twenty-one years old at the time of her death. (49) It was later revealed that she and Schmidt had begun a sexual relationship shortly after meeting, resulting in one or more aborted pregnancies. (50) Schmidt also performed a marriage ceremony of dubious legitimacy in which he purported to take Anna Aumuller as his wife. (51) Aumuller was pregnant when she met her death in September 1913. (52)

    As midnight approached on September 13, three members of the New York City Police Department visited Schmidt at St. Joseph's Church: Officer Frank Casassa, Detective John O'Connell, and Inspector Joseph Faurot. (53) When Schmidt left his room and descended the stairway to join the officers in the rectory's reception room, "[h]is whole body was shaking." (54) He continued trembling and buried his head in his hands upon being seated at a desk. (55) He was advised that any statements he made could be used against him. (56) Following some preliminary questions, the police showed Schmidt a photograph of Anna Aumuller. (57) Detective O'Connell twice asked Schmidt, "Did you kill her?" He received no response. (58) As the other officers held Schmidt's hands, Inspector Faurot patted Schmidt on the back and encouraged him to "[s]peak up" and "[t]ell the truth." (59) O'Connell asked for the third time, "Did you kill her?" (60) Schmidt replied, "Yes; I loved her." (61) After O'Connell and Faurot left the room, Schmidt described to Officer Casassa how he had disposed of the parts of Aumuller's body. (62) Before being taken to the police station, Schmidt pointed out where he burned the mattress on which Aumuller lay when he killed her. (63)

    It quickly became clear that Schmidt's mental health would figure critically in subsequent legal proceedings. In its September 15 edition, the New York Times reported that Father Luke Evans, the chaplain at the Tombs, as the New York City Jail was known, (64) where Schmidt was being held, had spoken with Schmidt and asked him "why he had killed the young woman." (65) Schmidt reportedly replied, "I loved her. Sacrifices should be consummated in blood." (66) The next day, the Times quoted Schmidt's lawyer, Alphonse Koelble, as saying "I have talked with the man [i.e., Schmidt], and am certain that he is insane. I do not see how any one hearing him talk could escape that conclusion." (67) A reporter dispatched to Germany to develop more information about the sensational case sent back news that "[b]oth of Schmidt's parents and other relatives living here consider him abnormal and say that there were numerous cases of insanity in the family." (68)

    Continuing their investigation, the police discovered that Schmidt had rented another apartment, which proved...

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