Unknown Stories of WNY: Forensic First

3:21 PM, Nov 9, 2012   |    comments
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SHELBY, N.Y. - Shelby is a quiet farm community in Orleans County.

But, in 1919, it was rocked with a murder mystery that sent shock waves across the country. A mystery that would eventually send shock waves across the legal world.

On March 12, 1915, wealthy farmer Charles Phelps and his housekeeper, Marjorie Wilcott were found shot to death. The discovery was made by one of Phelps' farmhands, Charles Stielow.

Stielow was a German immigrant, and when it was discovered that he kept a .22 caliber gun in his nightstand, he was quickly charged and convicted for the killing.

During the trial, the prosecution called an "expert" witness to testify at Stielow's trial. The witness, Dr. Albert Hamilton, stated that he bullets found in the victims had been fired by Stielow's gun.

On the basis of that testimony and other circumstantial evidence, Stielow was convicted and sentenced to death in Sing Sing's electric chair. His execution was scheduled and stayed seven times, twice when he was in the chair.

The Governor eventually ordered a re-examination of the evidence.

The bullets were looked over by a New York City Police Department weapons expert. He looked over the weapon and determined that Stielow's gun, the supposed murder weapon, had not been fired in between three and four years. He then fired the weapon into cotton batting and found that the bullets looked completely different that the ones taken from the bodies.

They looked more closely using a microscope at the State Police crime lab. Stielow's conviction was eventually overturned.

This was the first time ballistic forensics had ever been used to overturn a conviction, solve a murder mystery, and dig into one of the Unknown Stories of WNY.

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