Thursday, January 20, 2011

Researching Criminal Court Records

I spent a couple of days in Salida this week researching criminal court records. The ice on the river fascinates me. This picture was taken near Cotapaxi where the sun must not hit the snow long enough to melt it.

In researching the criminal court records for Ernest Christison's cattle rustling book, I am studying court cases involving thirteen different men. It isn't as easy as going to one place to find all of the records. The actual documents from the court cases are housed at the Colorado State Archives in Denver, however, the Record of Court Proceedings is at the Chaffee County Combined Courts in Salida.

When I started researching the story, I started with the Record of Court Proceedings in Salida. I went through the book and found Ernest's court cases, wrote down the numbers and the proceedings, then I visited the State Archives to look at the actual cases. The staff at the archives became well-acquainted with me and the Chaffee County box of court records. I can almost hear their inaudible groan when I ask for that box. It is on the top shelf, needing a ladder to reach it, and it is overflowing with documents. After looking at Ernest's court cases, I started looking for court cases involving other names I'd found in my research. Eventually, I went through every court case in the box, looking for names I recognized and this led me to the thirteen-plus cases I am researching.

Last week I reached the point of writing about the court cases in the January term of 1884. I thought I had everything I needed, however, as I started writing I realized that I had the information from the cases, but not the dates when court proceedings took place. Because this involved the eleven prisoners who escaped from jail, I thought I needed to go back and go through the Record of Court Proceedings again.

Tuesday I spent three hours going through the Court Proceedings, writing down every proceeding that took place--continuances, jury selection, jury verdicts, sentencing, plea bargains, etc. This will really help in writing the trial portion of my book.

Before I went to Salida, several people mentioned they hoped I found something new. I didn't expect to find anything new, but I did! I found a final report from the Grand Jury concerning the deplorable conditions of the county jail at the time of the prison break. The jail was filthy, the sewage pipe blocked for five days, and the prisoners were only receiving two meals a day at 8:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. More details to help me write!


1) Be sure to be looking in the District Court records. Criminal cases will be The People vs. whomever you are looking for.
2) Locate both the Record of Court Proceedings and the trial case documents. Find out if they are located in the same depository or different ones.

Look at cases around the same time as your case. Your criminal may show up in another case where he may be included as "et. al." Or the case may be related to the case you are researching that may clue you in to the bigger story.

Write down everything! Even if it doesn't mean anything to you.

If you know a lawyer, ask him or her about some of the terms or proceedings you don't understand. If not, do an on-line search for terms you aren't familiar with.

Did your criminal go to the state penitentiary? Find out where the prisoner records are kept. In Colorado, the State Archives has the Prisoner Index you can check on-line at this
link. If you find your criminal, then you can visit or request the record which includes the mug shot, description of prisoner, and details of when imprisoned and when released.

Do you have more questions about criminal court records? Leave a comment with your question and I will be happy to answer it if I can!