The Journal Register (Medina, NY)

November 21, 2012

Historic effort

Student's interest in overturned wrongful conviction could make its mark in Shelby

By Jim Krencik
Medina Journal-Register

Medina Journal-Register — SHELBY — The story of Charles Stielow gripped Orleans County and the nation nearly a century ago for good reason.

It included a shocking double homicide, a sensational trial and a series of close calls on death row before an unjust conviction was overturned by a pardon. The case is well-known within academic circles as a groundbreaking advancement in the use of forensics.

But it’s a tale that is unknown by many despite it’s importance and “Slaughter on a Snowy Morn,” a 2010 book on the subject. Nick Culver, a 12-year-old Shelby resident and DeSales Catholic School student, is looking to add a public reminder of events that he was enthralled by when he read the book and conducted additional research into the case.

Nick said he was drawn in by the number of interest characters in the story — most of all Stielow, an illiterate German immigrant who lived a simple life before being caught up in the case.

“He was a soft, nice teddy bear,” Nick said.

Stielow and Nelson Green were tried and convicted for the deaths of Charles Phelps and his housekeeper Marjorie Wilcott on the strength of confessions said to be given by the men and the testimony of a ballistics expert who wrongly connected the fatal bullets with a pistol found in Stielow’s home.

Daniel Culver, Nick’s father and a former Orleans County Sheriff’s Department member, said the poor testimony was typical of an earlier era of unreliable use of ballistics.

“People used forensics at the time, but it was mostly quackery,” said Culver, who is now a criminal justice instructor at Bryant & Stratton College. “With this case and others, it became more scientific.”

Stielow ended up in the notorious Sing Sing Prison, where he faced the death penalty.

“I was shocked at how close it was,” said Nick, whose energy boiled over in excited flourishes as he talked about the case. “He had seven last meals, one time people had to yell to stop (the execution).”

A public campaign aimed to prove that Stielow, who was illiterate, could not have given the confession; and that the gun taken from his residence could not have fired the fatal shots using techniques that are not dissimilar to current ballistics testing.

It succeeded and both men were pardoned by Gov. Charles Whitman in 1918 following a special investigation into the prosecution of the case.

Nick uses the case and his views on wrongful convictions as his entry into the local 4-H’s public speaking contest, which he won.

“I’d rather have 20 suspects walk free than have one innocent person executed,” Culver explained.

It also sparked the idea of placing a historical marker in West Shelby at the site of the murders. There are still several layers of approval needed to place the marker, but Culver’s energy and his family is behind the project.

Traci Culver, Nick’s mother and Shelby’s town bookkeeper, sought additional information on the case at the local level. She said it’s been a learning experience for her son.

“He’s realizing that if you want something done, it takes time,” Traci Culver said. “But he doesn’t quit or take no for an answer.”

Nick has contacted local historians, town officials and State Sen. George Maziarz about procuring the marker. Maziarz said projects to add roadside historical markers are rare, but that Culver’s drive has pushed this project forward.

Like the men and women whose work ensured an innocent man didn’t end up on the electric chair, Nick is pressing hard for his goal.

“At his age, to be this interested and have his tenacity, is impressive,” Maziarz said. “We deal with the bureaucratic side, but he did all the work.”

Contact reporter Jim Krencik at 798-1400, ext. 6327.