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!


Renaissance Women said...

Great information. I had found some great info on a murder trial I am working on in the papers, but have not had as much luck with the court records. You have given me some additional options. (Yes, my person did to to the territorial prison. It was before CO was a state).

Gayle Gresham said...

Good! Glad it was helpful. Let me know if I can be of any more help.

Dianne E. Butts said...

Interesting stuff, Gayle. And interesting how thick that ice is.

Terri said...

Gayle, Great post! What if you are looking for information on a case but don't know if it was ever solved. Can you cross reference the victim? I'm trying to find out if the man who murdered my cousins grandfather was ever caught. It was happened in Denver in 1936.

Anonymous said...

Your tenacity and attention to detail are amazing, Gayle. I can't wait to read the story you're weaving!

Lori Orser said...

This is great information. The court documents I most wanted to find were stored in the old state capitol building (ND), and it burned down in 1930, along all the papers except for one copy of the State Constitution. The county hasn't been very forthcoming, but I plan to visit again next spring. The roads are too bad right now! Thanks for the tips!


Greetings from Southern California :-)

I added myself to follow your blog. You are more than welcome to visit mine and become a follower if you want to.

God Bless You, ~Ron

Gayle Gresham said...

Terri, that's a good question. I'd start with actually looking at the court case and seeing what is there. Do you know the name of the man who killed him? Then I'd search the state pen index on the State Archives website. The Denver Library has a card index of the Rocky Mountain News. You could check there for the names of the murdered man and the murderer. (The index may not go as late as 1936, though. You can check that on the Denver Library website.) I hope these ideas will help get you started.

Gayle Gresham said...

Thanks, Dianne, Susan, and Lori! Lori, I've been lucky not to have any courthouses that burned down. But I've run across many incomplete case files. And some that disappeared...probably for a good reason.

Terri said...

Gayle - Thanks for your suggestions. I don't know if they ever found the man - all the article says is that they were looking for a cross-eyed man.

Christie said...

hi Gayle - so nice to hear about your progress!

I have a few suggestions to add to the researching if you like - one is to not be put off by agencies/clerks that say "We need a case number." Just offer to look through the folders or boxes yourself, as cases are oftentimes filed by last name.

Secondly, I would recommend that researchers check the neighboring county where the crime occurred. As in your research, the cattle rustling occurred near the Park/Chaffee border and there are court papers relating to the case in the Park Co. criminal box at the State Archives. Perhaps the county lines weren't particularly clear back then! Or sometimes there was a change of venue.

Third, I would check both County and District Court documents and ask for any "evidence maps" - diagrams of the "scene of the crime" that are too large to be filed with the Court papers. Someone may have filed them separately, rolled up in a map tube somewhere...

Your writing sounds fascinating! from Christie

Cheri Hopkins aka You Go Girl #2 & Sweetwater Sherry said...

Gorgeous pic, thanks for sharing that. The tips for searching criminal records were very timely. I helped to research a murder trial last year and think I could go back and find more now.

Gayle Gresham said...

Christie, great suggestion about checking neighboring counties. In my research, Ernest had separate cases in both Chaffee and Park counties. The Park County cases were quashed after he was sent to prison in the Chaffee County cases.

And you are right about changes of venue, because it then becomes the case of that County and is searched that way.

Gayle Gresham said...

Terri, I hope you find more on the case you are researching. A cross-eyed man - interesting!

Cheri, good luck in finding more in the murder case. Glad this post was helpful. See my comment on changes of venue, too,(if that pertains) that Christie mentioned.

Biff Barnes said...

Ron Arons of Criminal Research Press is a great resource in this area. He has a new book out, Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records, with tips about about researching court records. His website is

Gayle Gresham said...

Thanks for the info, Biff. Yes, Ron Arons books are a great resource. I met him last year at the Colorado Family History Expo.

Beth Groundwater said...

Very informative article on researching historical court cases! I learned a lot. Love your photos, too.
- Beth

Gayle Gresham said...

Thanks, Beth! And seriously, I hope I can make it to Salida on April 21 for your booksigning. If not, I'll watch for when you have a signing on the east side of the mountains.

Colorado Health Insurance said...

Hi Gayle,

I stumbled across your blog while surfing the net and find it quite interesting. Also, nice to see that we are neighbors kind of by both being in the Elbert County area. I just wanted to mention that my cousin is a Denver County Judge and huge history buff. I don't know if he could be resourceful for you or not, but I can get you in contact if you think he could help in anyway!