CU Film Showcasing Famous Legal Mystery to be Shown on Campus June 18

Published: June 12, 2009

The identity of a man killed 130 years ago was immediately called into question, generated two exhumations, six separate trials and two rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, one of them a landmark decision on admissible forms of evidence.

But the dead man's name remained a mystery until a dogged University of Colorado law professor and a colorful CU-Boulder anthropologist teamed up to crack the case. Ernesto Acevedo-Munoz, an associate professor of film studies, and 10 CU film studies students made a film of the forensic sleuthing that will be publicly screened for the first time on June 18.

The 55-minute film will be shown at 7 p.m. in room 100 of the ATLAS building, located just north of the Euclid Avenue Autopark on the CU campus. The event is free and open to the public.

In 1879, John Hillmon left his home and wife in Lawrence, Kan., to look for land for a cattle ranch. Hillmon's traveling companion, John Brown, later returned to say he had accidentally shot Hillmon. Widow Sadie Hillmon claimed the deceased's $25,000 life insurance policy.

The insurance company balked, and the body was exhumed to verify that the grave's occupant was Hillmon. The insurance company argued that it was not. The insurance company theorized that Hillmon and Brown had conspired to kill another man, Frederick Adolph Walters, to depict Walters' body as Hillmon's, and then to collect the money.

A key piece of evidence in the case was a letter from Walters to his fiancé in which Walters mentioned that he was traveling with Hillmon and was soon to come into a great sum of money.

In the third trial, the judge suppressed that evidence, ruling that it was hearsay, which is generally inadmissible. Hearing that case on appeal, the nation's high court then crafted an exception for the hearsay restriction when hearsay was deemed to indicate a person's "state of mind."

Marianne Wesson, a CU law professor, has been captivated by the case, in part because she questions the "state of mind" exception to the hearsay rule. She petitioned for the right to exhume the corpse, and she recruited anthropology Professor Dennis Van Gerven, a widely known forensic anthropologist, to lead the exhumation. For DNA extraction and analysis, the team relied on Ken Krauter and Helen Marshall, a professor and researcher, respectively, in CU's department of molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

In May 2006, Wesson, Van Gerven, Acevedo-Munoz and his film crew went to the grave in Lawrence and got to work. The results were initially discouraging, but Van Gerven was later reported to have had a "eureka moment," declaring with confidence that the man buried in Hillmon's grave was, in fact, Hillmon.

In addition to the 10 students from film studies, students from anthropology and law also collaborated on the film. Wesson, Van Gerven and Acevedo-Munez will attend the screening and answer questions.

ATLAS is a CU-Boulder institute for undergraduate, graduate and outreach programs that supports technology education for people and programs that traditionally do not have access to equipment and resources.

For information on other events on campus, visit the CU-Boulder Events Calendar at