Why didn’t the state attorney order an autopsy when he was considering the possibility of murder? Why didn’t he order an autopsy after Bill was indicted for murder?
When the punishment is execution, this seems to reflect either an extraordinary incompetence on the part of the state attorney or a failure to protect a potentially innocent person against a deadly miscarriage of justice.
Meanwhile, there are a number of questions and concerns about the autopsy as discussed below.
1. Bill was told that an autopsy might provide proof that Haden committed suicide. He was also told that it might provide proof that Haden was murdered. Ralph Barker in Verdict of a Lost Flyer suggested that Bill was in a sense bound to request an autopsy after Defence Attorney Carson suggested it, otherwise he would appear guilty. However, the results of the autopsy would not only be available to the defence but to the prosecution. If there was anything in an autopsy that could suggest that Bill was guilty of shooting Haden, it would send him to the electric chair. ‘If Bill Lancaster had known he was guilty,’ Carson told the court in his closing argument, ‘don’t you suppose he would have been glad to have Charles Haden Clarke lie undisturbed in the cemetery? Give me credit if you want to, if you won’t give anybody else credit, for having intelligence enough not to file in this court a motion for the disinterment and autopsy of that body unless I knew in my soul that the boy had committed suicide. Give me credit also for fidelity to the interest of my client enough to warn him of the danger of the autopsy if he were guilty. The fact that Lancaster signed the motion ought to convince anybody with any knowledge of human nature that the man is absolutely innocent.’
2. Haden’s body was dug up, the wounds examined by the medical commission ordered to conduct the autopsy and the results communicated to the court. These doctors were subpoenaed by the defence and testified that the muzzle of the gun had been held tight against the skull and the entire explosion of gases had taken place inside the skull. When asked if this proved suicide, some of them said that this couldn’t be proved scientifically but it suggested so.
3. The prosecution failed to call any of these doctors to testify!
4. Carson told the jury in his closing argument that Dr Thomas, the county physician, had seen powder burns inside the entrance wound immediately after Clarke’s death and had reported his finding to both the state attorney’s office and the grand jury. The prosecution failed to call the state’s own county physician to testify in the trial!
5. The state attorney in his closing argument said that his office had approved the order for an exhumation and autopsy but that the autopsy results provided little more than additional front-page publicity. ‘It provided more testimony about internal explosions, which has never been in dispute, and that the gun was held at close range, which has not been disputed, but which does not preclude the theory of murder.’ This is an astonishing revelation. At no point during the trial did State Attorney Hawthorne disclose this information to the jury. Rather than calling the county physician or any of the autopsy doctors to testify, he instead relied on the evidence of the embalmer who testified to not seeing any powder marks, thereby indicating that it wasn’t a close contact wound and that Clarke’s death couldn’t have been suicide. Yet, in Hawthorne's closing argument he agreed that it was indeed a close contact wound, albeit with the disclaimer – also previously not mentioned – that such a wound wasn’t proof in itself that the death wasn’t a murder.
6. This exposes an extraordinary evidentiary dishonesty on the prosecution’s behalf made worse by the fact that a man’s life was on the line.
The fact that Bill authorised the request for an autopsy suggests that he was innocent. The evidence also shows that the prosecution manipulated the evidence in an attempt to gain a conviction.