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Wyatt Earp Trial: 1881

The Hearing

A coroner's jury decided that the McLaurys and Billy Clanton had been killed by the Earps and Holliday, but it didn't assign blame. Ike Clanton swore the Earps and Holliday committed murder, so Behan arrested them. Virgil Earp was suspended as city marshal. Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer, a friend of Wyatt Earp, held a preliminary hearing to determine if the men should be tried.

Dozens of witnesses testified. Johnny Behan, who had observed the fight from an alley, testified that someone in the Earp party had fired first, hitting Billy Clanton just as Clanton was yelling, "Don't shoot me! I don't want to fight." He said Tom McLaury opened his coat and said he wasn't armed. Ike Clanton, also unarmed, ran into Fly's photographic studio after Holliday missed him with the shotgun, then ran out through Fly's back door and sought refuge in a Mexican dance hall.

Several witnesses who had no axe to grind corroborated Behan's testimony. Martha King was shopping when she heard one of the Earp party say, "Let them have it." She said Doc Holliday, whom she knew, replied, "All right." Then the shooting began. B. H. Fellehy said he overheard Virgil Earp tell Behan, "Those men have been making threats; I will not arrest them but will kill them on sight."

According to witnesses, Doc Holliday killed the unarmed Tom McLaury instantly with his shotgun, then missed Ike Clanton. At the same time, Morgan Earp shot Billy Clanton. Wyatt Earp then shot Frank McLaury, who staggered into the street and tried to get the rifle hanging on his horse. Billy Clanton, lying wounded, shot Virgil Earp in the leg. McLaury's horse ran away, so the cowboy drew his revolver. Morgan Earp shot him again, just as McLaury shot Holliday, now using a revolver instead of the shotgun. Billy Clanton then shot Morgan Earp in the shoulder, right before both Morgan and Wyatt Earp shot him again.

The defense presented a number of witnesses, but none who said the cowboys fired first. H. F. Sills said he saw four or five men, two of them armed, who said they were going to kill "the whole party of the Earps." Sills, a stranger in town, had to ask a bystander who the "Earps" were. Spicer allowed Wyatt Earp to read a prepared statement and did not allow cross-examination. 3

On November 29, Spicer found the Earp party not guilty. His opinion ignored most of the incriminating evidence. The fact that Ike Clanton, who had threatened the Earps, was not hurt, Spicer considered a "great fact, most prominent in the matter," showing that the "Earp Gang" was not bent on revenge.

Clanton was not injured, of course, because he could run fast and Doc Holliday was not as good with a shotgun as he was with a six-shooter. Spicer failed to note that the two armed cowboys had not used their rifles. If they had intended to murder "the whole party of the Earps," they could have mowed down their opponents before they got within pistol range.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Wyatt Earp Trial: 1881 - A Mysterious Stage Coach Robbery, Trouble Brewing, Shootout, The Hearing, Aftermath, Suggestions For Further Reading