Thursday, September 10, 2020

“She Rose from the Dead”

Wrongful murder conviction

Written by Robert A. Waters

Mary Vickery (pictured above) disappeared from Coxton, Kentucky on August 17, 1925. The “plump” blonde-haired fourteen-year-old lived with her father Charles, and stepmother, Nellie. Coxton was a small town in the heart of coal country, four miles west of Bloody Harlan, so-called because decades of deadly battles between coal company owners and union organizers made national headlines. The relationship between Mary and her parents, particularly Nellie, was strained. At the time the girl vanished, no one, including Charles and Nellie, seemed much alarmed.

On October 15, United States Marshal Adrian Metcalf was searching for a moonshine still in one of the hundreds of abandoned mine shafts in the mountains above Coxton. In Bugger Hollow mine, he literally stumbled on a cache of bones. County officials, called to the scene, discovered a complete human skeleton. The coroner estimated the age of the remains to be 12-14 years. Even though the victim was brunette, the coroner called Charles Vickery in to see if he could determine whether the remains were that of his daughter. Based only on a shirt and a ring found at the scene, Charles identified Mary. For someone who had learned his missing daughter had been discovered deceased, Charles’ behavior seemed odd—he didn’t even attend Mary’s funeral. The coroner could not determine how the girl had died.

A few months before Mary’s disappearance, Conley Dabney, 30, moved from Coal Creek, Tennessee to Coxton. Married, with two young children, Dabney was looking for work in the coal mines. He quickly found a job and established a reputation as a hard worker. He had no criminal record and few, if any vices. He had promised his wife he would remain faithful to her while he was away.

An enterprising young man, Dabney saved enough money to buy an old Ford sedan. Recognizing that most people in the area walked to where they needed to go, Dondy, as he was called, set up the car as a taxi. He soon had plenty of business. One of his frequent customers was an attractive single woman, twenty-seven-year-old Marie Jackson. Described in the newspapers as “having been with many men,” Marie quickly set her sights on Dabney. True to his word, he rejected her advances.

Dabney soon left the area and moved back to his hometown in Tennessee. He later testified in court that he left because his daughter had become ill and he wanted to find work closer to home.

For months, Marie Jackson brooded over Dabney’s rebuff. Finally, she decided to get revenge on the straight-arrow cabbie. At the sheriff’s office, she informed investigators that she had witnessed Dabney murder Mary Vickery.

An investigation began into Dondy Dabney (pictured above). There was no evidence against him except the accusations of Marie. After several false starts (grand juries twice refused to indict Dabney), the suspect was arrested and brought to trial.

Yale Law School Professor Edwin M. Borchard summarized Jackson’s testimony to the court: “About seven o’clock the morning Mary Vickery disappeared, [Jackson] and Mary stopped Dabney’s taxi as it came up to them on a road just outside of Coxton.” After taking the girls into town and buying them lunch, Marie claimed the three went to Ivy Hill, an isolated place in the mountains. Mary sat in the front seat with Dabney as he drove.

“At the hill,” Borchard wrote, “they got out of the car and sat down on a log in a clearing. After they had talked a little while, according to Marie, Dabney told her to go around behind the hill as he wanted to talk to Mary alone. She said she went away and sat down at a place from which Dabney and Mary were visible to her. She told the court that she saw Dabney hug the girl, who protested, and then strike her with a stick. Mary fell to the ground and the witness said she saw Dabney attack her. [Marie] then told how Dabney walked around the hill, came back, and finally found her. He told her, she said, that if she ever mentioned what had happened, he would burn her at the stake and that if he was prevented, he would have someone else do it. She said Dabney then took the body to the mine while she fled the scene.”

In addition to Marie’s testimony, a jailhouse informant told the court that, while awaiting trial, Dabney had confessed to killing Mary.

The defense called three witnesses who testified that they’d seen Dabney’s taxi in town at the time he was allegedly murdering Mary. Dabney testified that he did not remember taking Mary to the train station, but he had lots of clients and couldn’t remember them all. He vehemently denied that he’d murdered Mary.

Conley Dabney was convicted and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. He served eleven months before learning that his “victim” had returned home.

When Mary appeared at her father’s doorway, he was shocked. He welcomed his daughter home and soon word spread around town. Mary told detectives that she ran away from home because of conflicts with her stepmother.

After being interviewed by detectives, Mary explained her absence to reporters. “Conley Dabney was driving a taxicab,” she said, “and I had him take me to the [train] station. He left me there and I went to Cincinnati where I got a job in a woolen mill. Several months ago, I heard that I was supposed to have been killed and that some man had been sent to prison for killing me. I dreaded to go back home, so I did not do anything about it for a while. Then someone I told about it said I ought to go back and get him out.”

Harlan County Sheriff George S. Ward hauled Marie Jackson into the station. His detectives created a lineup to determine whether Jackson knew Vickery, as she had claimed. The accuser could not pick Mary out of the six women she was shown. Ward immediately arrested Jackson.

Within 24 hours, she had confessed to making up the story. Kentucky Governor William J. Fields pardoned Dabney and demanded an investigation into the affair. Dondy was released from prison and the state debated whether to give him $5,000 for his wrongful conviction. 

The case caused much consternation among legal scholars and local officials. How could an innocent man be convicted on almost no evidence? How could a jilted wannabe lover be cold-hearted enough to send a man to prison just because he rejected her? Jailhouse informants in America have an atrocious record of lying to get their sentences reduced—how could the courts continue to use such liars in trials across the country? 

Mary Vickery married an old boyfriend shortly after returning to Coxton. Many people speculated the marriage was to get away from a desperate home situation.

Marie Jackson was tried and convicted of false testimony. She was sentenced to five years in prison, though the presiding judge told her he wished he give her more. 

The remains found in Bugger Hollow mine were never identified.