Part 4 Two Trials; Two Sentences
Dempsey was transported to Valdez to await trail. There he told yet another story, denying the Lavor killing. He also said that he had shot Evans simply because he wanted to escape from the deputy's attention.
In Valdez, Judge Charles Bunnell appointed attorney Anthony J. Dimond to defend the accused. Dempsey's life story was a puzzle to Dimond. He heard a wild story about an orphan who was raised in an institution back east, and later worked on a farm. Dempsey claimed to have spent his time with criminals and hoboes until he came west at 17, eventually making his way to Anchorage. He said he was now 19 years old.
Dempsey actually had parents and six siblings in Cleveland, Ohio. They said their son had suffered a serious skull fracture as a boy and experienced periods of irrational behavior, several times threatening his sister with a knife. In fact, he had acted so strangely that family friends had advised the boy's father to commit him.
Dimond presented this background information to the jurors as part of an insanity defense; however, several local acquaintances testified to his sanity. Letters and telegrams Dempsey had written showed him to be sane. Three expert witnesses testified to his absolute sanity, and two other physicians examined him and agreed.
Bunnell was convinced that Dempsey was not who he claimed to be, and that he was older than 19. He believed that the murderer had traveled with the real Dempsey and was simply impersonating him. The Evans murder trial ended on Nov. 28, four days after it began. After an hour and a half the jury returned with a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder and rejected the qualification of mercy it was entitled to make. Under Alaska law, Bunnell was thus required to order a hanging.
He sentenced Depmsey to be hanged on Feb. 20, 1920.
A day after the first trial ended, the second one, for the murder of Margaret Lavor began. Dimond did not attempt the insanity defense in the Lavor trial since evidence to the contrary was so overwhelming.
Although Dimond again defended Dempsey with all of his "zeal and ability", the jury again returned a guilty verdict after only two hours of debate. Bunnell again sentenced Dempsey to be hanged.
Dempsey responded to the sentencing by threatening to kill all court officials connected with the case.
Both trials had been eminently fair. In both cases, jurors were selected from localities 250 to 500 miles distant from the murder scenes. No jurors from Anchorage or Seward were allowed. Continuances were granted in both cases to allow the defense to prepare the cases and get witnesses or relatives.
The Dempsey family next hired a Cleveland attorney to obtain commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment.
The government prosecutor had found Dempsey to be a "cold-blooded murderer and desperado," and he protested that "any communication would be a mockery of justice, a license to murderers of his kind."
Judge Bunnell and other officials were shocked when President Woodrow Wilson, through his Attorney General Mitchel Palmer, commuted Dempsey's sentence to life imprisonment. Commutations were fairly common during Wilson's administration, and the result should not have surprised Bunnell. But he had a certain uneasy feeling about the murderer and would have been relieved to see him hanged.