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Red River Scrapbook: "... equal and exact justice"
By Edward Southerland
Oct 11, 2016
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“…equal and exact justice…”

“I have never had the single aim of justice in view… ‘Do equal and exact justice,’ is my motto, and I have often said to the grand jury, ‘Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape.’” – Judge Isaac C. Parker, 1896

He was not referred to as the “hanging judge,” until the 1920s, long after his death.

He did not attend or watch the executions ordered by his court; usually he stayed in chambers or went home. The U.S. marshal was in charge of the proceedings.

He did not necessarily impose the death penalty of his own accord. Until 1898, federal law required a death sentence for a jury verdict of guilty for rape or murder, and both crimes were plentiful in Parker’s jurisdiction.

At thirty-six, he was not the youngest federal judge when appointed; his William Story, who held the post before Parker, was twenty-eight at his appointment, and President Lincoln had appointed Thomas Jefferson Boynton to a Florida judgeship when he was twenty-five.

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Isaac Charles Parker was born on October 15, 1838 in Ohio. He grew up on a farm near Barnesville in that state. He went to Breeze Hill school and Barnesville Classical Institute, and at seventeen, read the law, and was admitted to the bar in 1859.

When admitted to practice, the he moved to St. Joseph, Missouri where he worked in his uncle’s law firm, Shannon and Branch. He married Mary O’Toole in 1862 and eventually the couple had two sons. He won office as a Democrat for the position as St. Joseph’s part-time city attorney and served three one-year terms, and in 1863 he enlisted in the 61st Missouri Emergency Regiment, a Union home guard unit, and served until war’s end.

Isaac Parker during the Civil War
In 1864, he left the Democrats over the slavery issue, joined the Republicans, and was soon elected county prosecutor for the Ninth Missouri Judicial District. That same year, he served as a member of the Electoral College, casting his vote for Abraham Lincoln. In 1868, he became the judge of the Twelfth Missouri Circuit.

In 1871, Parker won a seat in te Forty-second Congress from Missouri’s 7th district, and went to Washington, where he championed pensions for veterans, the organization of the Indian Territory as a territorial government, and votes for women. During a second term, he advocate for fair treatment of tribes in the Indian Territory, and support changes in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

1874 saw Parker as the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, but when he determined he probably would not carry the election, he sought and accepted President Grant’s appointment as U.S. district judge for the Western District of Arkansas.

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The Western District was in a bad way. The previous judge, William Story, had resigned under a cloud of corruption, and several jurists had turned down the appointment to replace him. In return for taking on the job, Issac Parker negotiated an unusual concession from the administration. There were to be no appeals from his court. The decisions rendered by judge and jury could not be reviewed by a higher authority.

President Grant submitted Parker’s nomination to the senate for approval on March 18, 1875 and quickly got it. The new judge arrived in Fort Smith on May 4, and brought his court to order for the first time on May 10. Working ten hours a day, six days a week, Judge Parker tried ninety-one defendants during his first eight weeks. Of the eighteen charged with murder, fifteen were convicted.

Eight of those fifteen were sentenced to hang on September 3. One of the original eight was killed in an escape attempt, and another had his sentence commuted because of his youth. The remaining six, three whites, two Indians, and one black, made the drop from gallows on the appointed day.
Artist's rendition of the executions of September 3, 1875.

The hangings produced a frenzy of public interest all over the country. By the time
George Maledon, executioner
executioner George Maledon adjusted the nooses around the necks of the condemned, more than five thousand spectators had swarmed into Fort Smith to witness the spectacle. It was a field day for the press as well. Newspapers from all over the country sent reporters to cover the hangings, and the next day provided readers with the details of the event. Times clearly had changed in Western District of Arkansas.

Over the years the criticism of Parker and his administration of justice on the harsh edge of the frontier came primarily from the Eastern establishment safe in towns and cities of a more gentile culture. For the most part, the citizens most exposed to the violence and lawlessness in the West, stood by his efforts.

Although the government executed seventy-three more felons during Parker’s tenure, he personally opposed the death penalty. “… in the uncertainty of punishment following crime, lies the weakness of hour halting justice,” he wrote.
Although the unusual proviso of his appointment allowed no appeals, at least in the early days, Parker sometimes granted retrials, and commuted court imposed sentences when he thought it advisable.

From the beginning, the Nations of the Five Civilized Tribes, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole had run their own court systems to deal with members of the tribes. Parker’s court had covered the rest of the territory.
Judge Parker in his prime.

In 1883, congress reduced the jurisdiction of his court, assigning the northern parts of the Indian Territory to U. S. District Court for Kansas in Wichita, and the southern portion to the Northern District of Texas, usually the Paris division. Six years later, congress set up the first U.S. court in and for the Indian Territory in Muskogee, and that same year removed the provision that denied appeals from the Western District of Arkansas. Over the next seven years, forty-four death penalty case went up on appeal and thirty of those were remanded for retrial.

At the start of the court’s August 1896 term, Judge Parker was ill, at home, and unable to preside. He died of health problems including a heart condition and Bright’s disease on November 17, 1896 and was buried in Fort Smith.

Over twenty-one years Issac Parker tried 13,490 cases of which 9,454 ended with convictions or guilty pleas. Of these, 344 were capital crimes carrying a possible death sentence. Of the 160 defendants sentenced to die, seventy-nine actually met that fate.