IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The Hillmon Case: professors journey to uncover a mystery
An Old West mystery: a freshly opened grave in Lawrence, Kansas, and three professors gazing into the cavity—what if nothing is found? Associate professor of film studies Ernesto Acevedo-Munoz wondered if he and fellow CU professors Marianne “Mimi” Wesson from the School of Law and Dennis Van Gerven of anthropology had in the end “come all the way to Lawrence, Kansas only for a cheeseburger.”
The professors and three students were on site at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence to film the exhumation of 19th century remains and perhaps solve a mystery over a century old. Acevedo-Munoz was surprised and delighted to find himself filming not only a legal and forensic mystery, but capturing “pure serendipity – the momentum of people together.”
The group was attempting to establish the identity of the man buried in the Kansas grave, the victim of an accidental shooting or a murder, who might be either John Hillmon or Frederick Adolph Walters. The case was the centerpiece of an 1892 landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Mutual Life Insurance Company v. Hillmon, to allow hearsay evidence from which an individual’s state of mind may be determined. Prior to the ruling, this sort of hearsay evidence was inadmissible in a trial.
At the center of the decision was the identity of the body. Wesson believed the court’s conclusion was a legal ruling that didn’t make sense, and that the body buried at Oak Hill was Hillmon and not Walters, as the court apparently presumed. She enlisted biological anthropologist Van Gerven to study any remains found and Acevedo-Munoz to film the proceedings.
The exhumation took place on a hot and steamy day while Wesson, Acevedo-Munoz and the student assistants waited breathlessly as Van Gerven descended into the open grave. “I was lying on my belly in that hole, finding nothing and sensing that I was failing my friends,” he said. “My hand touched something—I knew it was a bone, and which piece of bone it was. Sheer relief. I’ll never have that moment again.”
Although subsequent DNA analysis failed to establish the identity of the remains, Acevedo-Munoz’s digital photography determined through comparison of each man’s photograph with skull fragments that the body could not be that of Walters and that the facial structure was a perfect match for Hillmon. “I remember that moment; time stood still,” said Wesson. “Maybe this story will end with my persuading my fellow scholars and the Supreme Court that this rule of evidence should be abandoned because its roots are so corrupt.”
But the ending was less important than the magical journey. “We all have such tremendous respect and affection for each other,” Wesson said. The Hillmon Case and the road trip to Lawrence proved to be a powerful bonding experience, “a collaboration of absolute respect and trust,” according to Van Gerven. “Our Flagship 2030 vision” added Acevedo-Munoz.
“It’s in the movie, that turning point and the charming personalities of the people on this crazy road trip, Mimi and Dennis, who have this kind of trust for one another,” he said. “I am flattered they came to me. It’s a documentary that made itself.”
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