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Billy Sutton, affectionately known by everyone as “Uncle Billy,” found himself behind bars back in 1852.
After his friends bailed him out, he – needing some legal advice – paid a visit to L.A. Norton, a local attorney who practiced law in Placerville.
“Uncle Billy, what is the nature of your case?” Norton inquired.
“They have arrested me for stealing Aunty Crowley’s turkey,” he replied.
Uncle Billy admitted his guilt to the crime of pullet larceny and told the lawyer that the prosecuting attorney could prove it. He informed Norton, “There was a man with me and they have him for a witness.”
Apparently, Uncle Billy had gone to town and gotten “pretty full.” Upon returning to his cabin, he saw the turkey on the fence and decided “just for a lark,” to take it so he and his friends could have “a bit of a feast.” By moonlight, he and his companion carried the heavy bird to their camp and cooked it.
Norton, who regarded Uncle Billy as “anything but a thief,” accompanied his new client to court to face his prosecutor, “Cockeyed Jack Johnson.” After the trial date was set, Norton tipped his hat to the opposition’s key witness as he left the courtroom. The young man was not long in following. Half-whimpering, he told Norton that he didn’t want to send Uncle Billy to jail, but that “they” had made him do it.
Norton warned him, “If you send Uncle Billy below for stealing the turkey, I shall have to send you along to keep him company; for if he is guilty, you are ‘particeps criminis’...a party to the guilt.”
“What can I do?” the fellow implored.
Norton informed him that as a witness, he could not give him advice, but were he to employ him as his attorney, he could tell him what to do. So, the young man hired him. The lawyer then literally advised his new client to “head for the hills.”
When Norton returned to the courthouse alone, Johnson inquired about the whereabouts of the witness. The prosecutor glanced out the window and suddenly exclaimed, “By G-d! There he goes!” He and Constable Hopkins took off after the fleeing witness, but, Norton recalled, “The young racer soon distanced them and they returned panting.”
Johnson later asked the judge for a continuance of the case and accused Norton of tampering with the witness by running him off. If he could prove it, he would make certain that Norton would be disbarred, never to practice law again.
“Now, Your Honor,” Norton countered, “I ran him off – I did! But mark ye, not as a witness, but advising him as an attorney to a client. I found that if anyone had stolen Aunty Crowley’s turkey it was the young man who was guilty and as his attorney advised him to run, and I am happy to say that he took my advice to the letter and carried out my instructions admirably. Now, let the gentleman disbar me if he can.”
To see what happens next, check back in December to read Part Two.