Jesse Boorn and Stephen Boorn were convicted of murdering a man who was later found alive.
The brothers were convicted in 1819 in Manchester, Vermont. The case is the first documented wrongful murder conviction in U.S. history. When Russell Colvin disappeared in 1812, suspicion of foul play fell on his brothers-in-law, Jesse and Stephen Boorn, who never liked Colvin. Seven years later, the uncle of the suspects had a dream in which Colvin appeared to him and said that he had been slain. Colvin did not identify his killers but said that his remains had been buried in a cellar hole on the Boorn farm. The cellar hole was excavated but no remains were found. Shortly afterward, a dog unearthed some large bones from beneath a nearby stump. Three local physicians examined the bones and declared them human.
Officials took Jesse Boorn into custody. They would have arrested Stephen Boorn as well, but he had moved to New York. While in custody, Jesse’s cellmate, forger Silas Merill, told authorities that Jesse confessed. In return for agreeing to testify against Jesse, Merrill was released from jail. Faced with a growing amount of evidence against him, Jesse admitted to the murder, but placed principal blame on Stephen, who legally was beyond the reach of the local authorities. A Vermont constable met up with Stephen, and Stephen agreed to return to Vermont with him to clear his name. After his return to Vermont, Stephen confessed as well, claiming to have acted in self-defense.
The local physicians then changed their minds that the found bones were human, and declared that they were actually animal remains. Nevertheless, the prosecution pressed ahead with its case and both of the Boorn brothers were convicted and sentenced to death. The Vermont legislature commuted Jesse’s sentence to life in prison, but denied relief to Stephen. Shortly before Stephen was to be hanged in 1820, Colvin was found living in New Jersey. On Colvin’s return to Vermont, both brothers were released.
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