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Lizzie Borden Trial: 1893

Judges' Instructions Favor Lizzie

Judge Dewey spoke for the three judges when he gave the jury their instructions concerning the law and evidence in the case. First, he reiterated the defense's point that the prosecutors had relied on circumstantial evidence. Second, he dismissed her inconsistent statements to the police after the murders as being normal under the circumstances. Having thus effectively challenged the basis of the prosecution's case, Judge Dewey went on to remind the jury members of their duty to Lizzie:

If the evidence falls short of providing such conviction in your minds, although it may raise a suspicion of guilt, or even a strong probability of guilt, it would be your plain duty to return a verdict of not guilty.… [S]eeking only the truth, you will lift this case above the range of passion and prejudice and excited feeling, into the clear atmosphere of reason and law.

On June 20, 1893, the jury left the courtroom to deliberate. Perhaps Judge Dewey's instructions had swayed the jury, or perhaps the jury was truly convinced of her innocence. In either event, after little more than an hour of deliberation the jury returned to the courtroom with its verdict. It found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the murder charges.

After two long weeks of what was one of the nation's most widely publicized trials, Lizzie left the courtroom a free woman. To this day, historians have speculated that she had been covering up for sister Emma. It is possible that Emma committed the murders, or hired someone to enter the Borden house and murder her parents. There were conflicting accounts, not fully explored by the prosecutors or Lizzie's attorneys, that a hired assassin had been seen fleeing Fall River. Other accounts about visits that Emma had made to a nearby town, visits that could have related to the murders, were also left unexplored.

Her trial over, Lizzie left the old Borden residence and moved into a new house. Collecting her inheritance from her father's estate, Lizzie could live a comfortable life. She invested this money wisely, and became a prominent local benefactor of worthwhile charities, particularly animal shelters. By all accounts, she led a respectable life for nearly 35 years until her death in 1927. The infamy of her trial, however, has outlived her death.

Despite her acquittal, to this day Lizzie is still popularly regarded as one of America's most famous murderesses. In fact, her acquittal was really a triumph for women, because the jury refused to bend the rules of law that protect defendants when the prosecution played upon popular stereotypes about the "sly sex."

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Hunter, Evan. Lizzie. New York: Arbor House, 1984.

Lincoln, Victoria. A Private Disgrace. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1967.

Porter, Edwin H. The Fall River Tragedy. Portland, Maine: King Philip Pub. Co., 1985.

Radin, Edward D. Lizzie Borden. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Satterthwait, Walter. Miss Lizzie. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Spiering, Frank. Lizzie. New York: Random House, 1984.

Sullivan, Robert. Goodbye Lizzie Borden. Brattleboro, VT: Greene Press, 1974.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Lizzie Borden Trial: 1893 - Lizzie Charged With Murder, Attorneys Wrap Up, Judges' Instructions Favor Lizzie, Suggestions For Further Reading