A cold snowy day, November 17, 1952, opened the trial of Merle William Martin, man of numerous nicknames including “Steve” and “Red.” People blowing hot air into their cold hands were seen hurrying into the brand new Johnson County Courthouse. Dedicated not a month earlier, this $985,000 building was for the next two weeks where the fate would be decided for the man previously known as the “pillowcase burglar” and murderer of Deputy Sheriff Willard Carver.
Throughout a day and a half, 36 men were called in and questioned to be potential jurors. It finally dwindled down to 12. Many were excused because they did not believe in capital punishment, others for business reasons and some because they had knowledge of the case or were acquainted with persons involved.
County Attorney John Anderson indicated in his opening statement that ballistic tests proved the gun found in a vacant lot close to the apprehended Birmingham, Alabama, car was indeed the murder weapon. Deputy Sheriff Floyd Gaunt, Carver’s partner on the night of his homicide, was questioned for three hours describing the events of June 23. Others who testified included Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Van Schoelandt whose trucks were stolen, Mrs. Irene Bruce and Mrs. Moss Davis who identified stolen articles, Olathe photographer Guy Pierce who took pictures at the scene, and Mrs. Barth who initially called in the attempted theft of her car.
Fingerprints belonging to the defendant were found on stolen vehicles at the murder scene and in Birmingham. When Roberta Rae Carter, Martin’s girlfriend, was called to the stand, all she replied was, “I refuse to answer the question on the grounds that the answer might tend to incriminate me.” Earlier Martin’s attorney, who visited Carter while she was incarcerated, tried to not include her as a witness, attempting to prove she was Martin’s common-law wife. This attempt was not successful.
Martin’s attorneys used insanity as his defense. Three Psychiatrists testified throughout the trial, all appointed by Judge John L. Kirkpatrick. Two of the three psychiatrists found him sane and able to understand his position. The third psychiatrist found him to be suffering from a severe nervous disorder.
On Saturday, November 29, at 6:10 p.m., after deliberating only three hours and 40 minutes, the jury found Merle William Martin guilty of first degree murder, felonious assault, burglary and grand larceny. They recommended he be put to death. It was the first death penalty recommended by a county jury since the penal code of 1935 was enacted. After one stay of execution and another attempt, he was hanged by the neck on July 16, 1954. Before his execution he penned a letter taking full blame for the shooting: “Isgrigg did no shooting,” he wrote. He walked calmly and unaided to the gallows. The trap was sprung at 1:03 a.m., and he was pronounced dead at 1:16 a.m.
Three days after Martin was found guilty, Charles Wilford Isgrigg, Martin’s accomplice, entered a plea of guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. After serving approximately 20 years, Isgrigg was paroled in 1973 and released from parole in 1975. He died in 1981 in Joplin, Missouri.
Deputy Sheriff Willard Carver was a popular man. He served in World War II for three and a half years and was awarded the purple heart and a presidential citation for action during the Normandy Beach invasion. In 1949, he joined the staff of the Johnson County Sheriff’s office, and at the time of his death he was a sergeant. Also at the time of his death he was in the running for the Republican nomination of Sheriff.
-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library
Johnson County Archives