Mack Williams: The trial
Sometime last year, a picture of an old motel within the Salisbury city limits was posted on Facebook. I think it was a recent picture, but the motel itself is not so recent, having been around when I was in high school at East Rowan.
A couple of months ago, I was called for jury duty here in Danville, but was never selected for a jury. Although the judge said to us, “If you’re not called, don’t take it personally,” it still hurt my feelings a little bit (understandable, coming from a person who is sometimes painfully aware of a muscular, bloody, fist-sized organ, misplaced from its usual place in his chest, producing “pumping” sounds from where he sometimes “wears” it on his outer shirt sleeve, somewhere down around the cuff).
This brief time in the courtroom, but not as a juror, brought back the time when I was an actual juror in Salisbury and was sequestered along with 11 other jurors in what is currently known as the “Happy Traveler Inn” (the subject of that previously mentioned Facebook post). Back then, I think it was called “Days Inn” or “Motel 6,” but just now, I’m not so sure. (As part of its advertising, Motel 6 always “kept the light on,” but as to my absolute certainty of this motel’s name back in 1974, the particular light in my mind illuminating its sign has now gone out.)
The trial, the most “sensational” in a long time then, and even now, 39 years later for Salisbury and Rowan County, was the state’s case against Roger Lawrence Wetmore for the murder of his father, Edwin Hall Wetmore.
For a day of that week, I served on a jury which dealt with only the likes of drunk drivers, then the picking of the jury for the “serious” business began. I think that the defense (Bob Davis Esq.) liked me as a juror because I was a psychology major at Appalachian.
The finalized jury reflected different races, both sexes, and different walks of life. Mr. Ralph Wagoner, the owner of Wagoner Construction Co. was a member and our foreman, a true gentleman. (At one point, when the gravity of the situation was getting to me, the accomplished businessman-construction company owner counseled the psychology major, helping him to get control of his nerves.)
Another person whom I especially remember was a genial and also gentlemanly man from Granite Quarry. I recall him pronouncing the word “quarry” as “query,” a colloquialism sometimes found there then, and perhaps even now.
In my youth, I would sometimes poke fun at such pronunciation, but now, at 62 years of age, if I were to meet someone who said “query” for “quarry,” I would immediately grasp both of his hands with both of mine, shake them excitedly and ask, “Are you by chance from that dear little town where I attended grade school?” If he were, then we would sit down and reminisce, perhaps dispensing with formality and the word “Quarry” altogether, just making later reference to “Granite.”
I won’t go into any graphic details here, except to say that Roger Wetmore was charged with murdering his father, Edwin Hall Wetmore with a knife, then mutilating his lifeless body with an axe. His mother was charged as an accomplice after the fact, helping put the body in the back of Mr. Wetmore’s pickup truck, then driving her car to the Salisbury VA Hospital ball field so she could take her son back home after he had driven the pickup and left it there. Mr. Wetmore worked at the VA, and Roger and his mother placed the body there to make it appear as if a patient had done it (trying to take unfair advantage of a very cruel stereotype against brave men).
At the end of the first day of the Wetmore trial, the judge sequestered our jury in the previously mentioned motel (whatever its name was then), just east of I-85 on East Innes Street, instructing us not to watch any TV news show (WSOC or WBTV) which might cover our trial in the local and state news. He also told us not to read the Salisbury Post, as its reporters would surely be dealing with it, and while they would not let their personal opinions show, there might be a “man on the street” poll or article in which those interviewed would most likely state their own “biased” views. One conscientious juror reported the presence of a newspaper lying on the floor of the motel’s public men’s room to one of the deputies, who immediately effected its removal.
A deputy drove me to my home on the Old Concord Road to pick up my “necessities” (with my mother’s help) for what might be a several-day motel stay.
As I said before, I won’t go into gruesome details, but I will never forget when the state forensics expert brought the axe by for our close inspection. Unfortunately, I will always remember the forensic pictures of what lay in the back of that pickup truck, not because I want to, but because they were forever placed there by the prosecution to be examined by what represented the “cumulative me” up to that point in my life. (The “cumulative me” from that point on now reflects back.)
In a lighter vein, I must mention something about the jury’s meals at the restaurant. All of our meals were “on the county’s dime” (a phrase often used by many commenters in all newspapers, when concern about the use of public monies is being addressed). We were eating three meals there including dinnertime steaks, every night. Despite the much later-experienced deliciousness of Outback, in retrospect, those seemed like some of the best steaks I have ever eaten (probably because they were free).
Though it is often stated with exclaimed certainty that there is “no such thing,” we jurors had discovered that sometimes in this life, there is a “free lunch” (well, free for us) sometimes even preceded by a “free breakfast,” and later followed by a “free dinner.” On cruise ships, it is an honor to dine at the “captain’s table,” and not to be outdone, we were, in effect, the “table guests” of Sheriff John Stirewalt and Rowan County. One evening, the sheriff asked us if we could be more frugal in our choice of cuisine (possibly meaning a continental breakfast, soup and sandwich for lunch, and salad, chicken or spaghetti for dinner), lessening our stomachs’ combined impact upon the public coffers.
The beneficial aspects of exercise were not lost in all of this. After our evening meal, we as a group would walk several times around the motel. Anyone passing by, who might have been so foolhardy as to attempt to sway our opinions as jurors, would have been met by the men close behind us, led by the distinguished white-haired gentleman to whom those men gave their allegiance: Sheriff Stirewalt.
The judge informed us that deputies would be placed around-the-clock on each end of the motel’s hall where our rooms were lined up, another precaution against some outsider “meddling” with our individual reasoning (such reasoning, officially “fair and balanced,” as prescribed by law).
One night around 2 a.m., I decided to verify what the judge had said, so I opened my door very slowly and then peered (a little askance) in one direction, then the other, soon realizing that the judge was a man of his word (as all judges should be). Another way of referring to what I observed at each end of that hallway would be to say: “In all of my life, that is the safest I have ever been!”
We found Roger Wetmore guilty of murder in the first degree and he was given the death penalty, later changed to “life.” His story of a “spaceman” (not an astronaut or cosmonaut, but someone who had stepped off another galaxy) telling him to kill his father didn’t “wash” with us, since there was basically no psychological evidence to go on. (While hospitalized, he was only seen twice in a brief group-therapy setting, and any decision made in court is, by law, to be based only on what is presented). His mother, for her after-the-fact- abetting, was “banished” from North Carolina to live with relatives in Texas. That was the first time I knew that something so “medieval-sounding” was still on North Carolina’s legal books.
Upon the trial’s completion, a deputy drove me to my home at Route 7, Box 147, Old Concord Road. There is a song titled “Footloose,” but the emotion I was feeling that day could best be described as “set loose,” and I’ve never experienced such a liberating feeling, either before or since.
My mother would shortly move to Salisbury, and I would soon move to Yanceyville, but even knowing that I would not be in my old home for very long took nothing away from the joy of returning to that place filled with trees, shadows, rocks and memories.
The meticulous details of the Wetmore trial were recorded as they happened by the court recorder and filed away in the records of the North Carolina judicial system. These few, somewhat “less meticulous” memories of my personal experiences during that trial were written down 39 years later, and are a matter of “public record” in today’s Salisbury Post.