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John Hill Trial: 1971

Motive: Failed Divorce, Outburst Leads To Mistrial, Retrial Unnecessary

Defendant: John Robert Hill
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Donald Fullenweider and Richard Haynes
Chief Prosecutors: Erwin Ernst and l.D. McMaster
Judge: Frederick Hooey
Place: Houston, Texas
Dates of Trial: February 15-26, 1971
Verdict: Mistrial

SIGNIFICANCE: Sensational trials are not uncommon in Texas, but the extraordinary sequence of events that followed the death of Joan Hill made this a case without equal.

On Tuesday, March 18, 1969, Joan Hill, a 38-year-old Houston, Texas, socialite, became violently ill for no readily apparent reason. Her husband, Dr. John Hill, at first indifferent, later drove her at a leisurely pace several miles to a hospital in which he had a financial interest, passing many other medical facilities on the way. When checked by admitting physicians, Joan's blood pressure was dangerously low, 60/40. Attempts to stabilize her failed and the next morning she died. The cause of death was uncertain. Some thought pancreatitis; others opted for hepatitis.

Joan's father, Ash Robinson, a crusty and extremely wealthy oilman, remained convinced that his daughter had been murdered. Neither was he reticent about naming the culprit: John Hill. When, just three months after Joan's death, Hill married long-time lover Ann Kurth, Robinson threw thousands of dollars into a crusade to persuade the authorities that his son-in-law was a killer. Noted pathologist Dr. Milton Helpern, hired to conduct a second autopsy, cautiously volunteered his opinion that Joan Hill might have been poisoned.

Under Robinson's relentless badgering, prosecutors scoured legal textbooks, searching for a way to indict Hill. They came up with the extremely rare charge of "murder by omission," in effect, killing someone by deliberate neglect. Assistance came in the unexpected form of Ann Kurth. Hill had ditched her after just nine months of marriage. What Kurth told the district attorney bolstered their decision to indict Hill.

Jury selection began on February 15, 1971. Because of the defendant's undeniably handsome appearance, Assistant District Attorney I.D. McMaster aimed for a predominantly male, middle-class panel, one he thought likely to frown on a wealthy philandering physician. His opponent, chief defense counsel Richard Haynes, quite naturally did his best to sit jurors that he thought would favor his client. In this first battle McMaster emerged a clear victor, securing a jury made up of eleven men and one woman. Haynes wasn't that perturbed. In a long and eventful career he'd overcome bigger obstacles, earning a statewide reputation second to none for tenacity and legal acumen. Not for nothing had he acquired the nickname "Racehorse." It promised to be a memorable contest.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972