Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp (Book Review)

Reviewed by Johnny D. Boggs
By Steven Lubet
Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, Conn., 2004

Is there anything left to say about the October 26, 1881, fight in which three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday killed Billy Clanton and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury in Tombstone, Arizona Territory? After all, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which didn’t take place at the corral) lasted less than 30 seconds, and several other Wild West shootouts had higher body counts. Of course, the Tombstone street fight did have quite an aftermath, and reverberations from the event would be felt for years afterward. So what’s the verdict?

In Murder in Tombstone, Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University, concentrates on the immediate legal proceedings after the gunfight. After a coroner’s inquest proved inconclusive, Ike Clanton, one of the gunfight’s instigators who, unarmed, fled shortly after the shooting started, filed first-degree murder charges against the Earps and Holliday. What followed over the next month was a legal courtroom thriller–call it Perry Mason Meets Gunsmoke. "We tell ourselves that trials are about truth," Lubet writes, "but they are also very much about clarity. The most convincing case wins, not necessarily the truer one."

Technically, Lubet’s subtitle, The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp, is a misnomer because the case never went past Judge Wells W. Spicer’s preliminary hearing. Spicer, who had defended John D. Lee years earlier during the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre case in Utah Territory, found insufficient evidence to proceed with a trial, and a grand jury failed to indict. Yet the hearing proved dramatic enough, especially with the arrival of Texas attorney Will McLaury, brother of the deceased Frank and Tom, to assist with the prosecution. "The case against the Earps, with its dueling narratives of brutality and justification, played out themes of intrigue, betrayal, duplicity, revenge, and even adultery," Lubet writes. History buffs and John Grisham wannabes will enjoy defending or prosecuting Lubet’s analysis and assessment of The Territory of Arizona v. Morgan Earp, et al., and most will reach the verdict that Murder in Tombstone is a refreshing take on an Old West legend.

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