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ASSASSIN GUILTY AGAIN IN REPEAT TRIAL

Faithful to the historic realities of the brief trial that convicted President William McKinley's assassin, anarchist Leon F. Czolgosz was convicted Saturday in a centennial re-enactment.

The only difference in the less-than-five-hour proceeding was that the original trial spanned a two-day period, including the 32 minutes it took for the all-male, 12-member jury to deliberate the murderer's fate.

Using dialogue from the trial, the cast, wearing period attire, uttered their lines in the same Erie County Courthouse courtroom where Czolgosz was convicted on Sept. 24, 1901.

"Guilty!" cried Czolgosz, who was played by Erie County Assistant District Attorney Frank T. Housh, when asked how he wished to plead.

"That plea cannot be accepted. . . . The clerk of the court will enter a not guilty plea," State Supreme Court Justice Vincent E. Doyle stated in playing the role of Judge Truman C. White.

One of the defendant's two attorneys informed the judge that he was serving in the "unpleasant" task of defending the accused only because he owed it to the legal profession.

The judge, in recognizing, perhaps accepting, the apology, pointed out that he had just rejected Czolgosz's guilty plea in order to ensure justice would be carried out.

But the judge's words did not come without a notation that the defendant's cry of guilt could only be interpreted as a realization that there was no escaping the penalties prescribed by the law -- a veiled way of saying execution.

Indeed, Czolgosz was strapped into an electric chair and executed in Auburn Prison five weeks later.

The trial, viewed in retrospect by many as approaching a legal lynching, brought to center stage how far the American legal system has advanced over the past century, according to members of the Bar Association of Erie County, which staged the event.

Buffalo citizens in 1901 were so outraged by the shooting in the Temple of Music on the grounds of the Pan-American Exposition in North Buffalo that when McKinley succumbed to his wounds days later on Sept. 14, angry mobs threatened to lynch Czolgosz.

And though one of the defense lawyers expressed regret at representing the assassin, it did not take long for both to warm up to the task. Glenn E. Murray, a criminal lawyer who played the role of one of the defense lawyers, fiercely cross-examined one of the doctors who autop-sied the president's remains.

It was clear from the line of questioning that the attorney was trying to prove the bullet wounds had nothing to do with McKinley's demise.

The lawyer tried muddying the waters by questioning the use of antiseptics and suggesting that the doctors found "cancerous germs" inside the stomach cavity of the deceased.

This did not sit well with the 35 often vocal spectators, who booed and shook their heads in disgust every time the defense had the audacity to question the prosecution's case.

DA Thomas Penney was played by Erie County Deputy District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III. Watching Sedita's performance from the jury box were a number of well-known members of the present-day legal community, including Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark.

Pathologist Dr. Harvey Gaylord, played by real-life University at Buffalo pathologist Peter Ostrow, was left seemingly confused by the interrogation regarding the autopsy. Outside the courtroom, Ostrow explained that after having read the actual transcript from the autopsy, he was convinced Gaylord was covering up for the shortcomings of the surgeons who operated on McKinley.

"Gaylord testified that the wounds in the stomach were well-healed at the time of the autopsy, but then the surgeons later testified that the wounds had not healed well."

McKinley, Ostrow pointed out, was visiting an exposition dedicated to electric light, and yet the room in which the president was operated on lacked that kind of light. "They had an individual standing at a window with a mirror reflecting daylight into the operating room," he said.

The reason the doctors never found a bullet in the president, Ostrow explained, "was the McKinley family was able to stop the autopsy."

Playing Secret Service Agent George Foster was retired Secret Service Agent Phil Kiefer, who could not help marveling at the irony.

"They say this assassination and trial changed the country. Now almost 100 years to the day, we have the tragic attacks on America by terrorists, and that will again change the country," Kiefer said.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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