Did the jury think that Bill was ‘not guilty of first degree murder’ or that he was ‘innocent’? This is an important distinction.
In the trial’s aftermath, the Miami Daily News wrote, ‘The “not guilty” verdict automatically branded Clarke’s death as suicide, the principle defence contention.’ Legally, though, the verdict merely reflects the jury’s conclusion that Bill was not guilty of first degree murder.
The prosecution might have found it easier to convict Bill if it had charged him with second degree murder – that is, a killing that lacked premeditation or planning. However, the jurors’ post-trial remarks suggest otherwise. The reasons for their verdict included the state’s careless treatment of the evidence – the crumpled discarded telegram, the wiped gun – and the appearance of Clarke’s mother in the courtroom near the trial’s end. This led the jurors to ask themselves why she hadn’t testified on her son's behalf, which introduced an element of reasonable doubt into their deliberations.
While the jury was right to acquit Bill of first degree murder, the verdict doesn’t necessarily mean that the jurors thought him innocent. A well-known problem in societies that legislate capital punishment is that some jurors are less willing to convict because they don’t wish to have a death on their consciences, particularly the death of a person who might be innocent. While the jury room dynamic in Bill's trial will never be known, the jurors' post-trial behaviour suggests that they thought him innocent. Photos were published of the judge and jurors smiling at Bill and shaking his hand, an unlikely physical contact if they thought him a killer.
Although the state charged Bill with premeditated murder, Hawthorne in his closing argument asked the jury to decide if Bill killed Haden Clarke or if Clarke committed suicide. That being the case, the verdict of ‘not guilty’ indicates in practical terms that the jurors deemed the death a suicide.
The jurors thought that Haden killed himself and therefore that Bill was innocent.