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Mock trial highlights case of the 1954 suicide of Hunt
Rod Haper, left, as Joseph McCarthy, and Devon Peterson as his defense attorney in Wednesday's performance in Lander of "The Trial of Joe McCarthy." Photo by Andrea Novotny

Mock trial highlights case of the 1954 suicide of Hunt

Jun 30, 2013 - By Andrea Novotny, Staff Writer

Citizens announced their verdict on "The Trial of Joe McCarthy" Wednesday night at Lander Middle School.

In the mock trial, set in 1954, the State of Wyoming has charged deceased Sens. Joseph McCarthy, Styles Bridges and Herman Welker of four crimes. They are charged with the blackmail of Wyoming U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt; aggravated blackmail of Hunt, resulting in Hunt's suicide; and conspiracy to commit both crimes.

Bruce Palmer, chairman of the sponsoring party, the Fremont County Democrats, described the event as something close to "readers' theater."

But this play has no predetermined ending. This time, the jury found Bridges and Welker guilty of all three counts, but could not come to a unanimous verdict on McCarthy himself.

In many ways, by not convicting the man who led the movement and who lends his name to the term, the hung jury was a rejection of the thought process behind McCarthyism.

Jury foreman Gena Robinson said the entire jury of six men and eight women felt that McCarthy was responsible for Hunt's suicide, but that they did not have sufficient evidence to convict him.

Hunt had Fremont County connections. A Democrat, he was a dentist in Lander and a Fremont County representative to the Wyoming Legislature in the 1930s. He later moved to Lusk before being elected both Secretary of State and Governor of Wyoming.

In the mock trial's closing statement, Devon Petersen, playing the defense attorney, reminded the jury and audience of the importance of having evidence beyond reasonable doubt. He said to make a conviction without definitive evidence would be "the same as holding up a piece of paper and saying 'Here are 57 communists. Just believe us.'"

The decision came after hearing testimonies from five witnesses, each presenting different pieces of exposition of the life and death of Hunt. The testimonies also served to educate, reminding the audience of historical details and the political climate of 1954.

The performance was punctuated with humor, but also carried themes of corruption, homophobia, bullying, and what Palmer calls the "politics of destruction."

Hunt's son, Lester "Buddy" Hunt Jr., was charged with soliciting homosexual sex from an undercover police officer of the Washington, D.C, vice squad, also known at the time as the "Pervert Elimination Squad."

One chief function of the squad was to find and expose homosexuals, especially homosexuals in the government, as it was believed that they would be more susceptible to treachery.

Adolf Hitler was said to have compiled a list of American homosexuals. This list purportedly had fallen into the hands of Joseph Stalin, who intended to use it to turn the individuals into spies for the Soviet Union.

Initially, the charges were dropped because Buddy Hunt had a clean record and was a practicing seminary student.

But the 1954 election was approaching, and the Democrats controlled Congress by one seat. Welker and Bridges encouraged Hunt not to seek re-election. He refused, and the charges against Buddy were soon reinstated.

The White House offered Hunt a position as chairman of the Tariff Commission, which paid more than senator, if he promised to resign from the Senate and never seek re-election. He refused again.

Hunt faced threats from Welker and Bridges, who claimed to have printed 25,000 posters to expose Buddy as a homosexual, which they would distribute to every household in Wyoming if Hunt ran in the next election.

McCarthy held a press conference to announce that he had evidence, which he would present the following day, to expose a democratic U.S. Senator of bribery.

The next day Hunt shot himself. McCarthy never delivered on his promise.

Rodger McDaniel, whose book "Dying for Joe McCarthy's Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt," inspired the mock trial, maintains that there is little doubt that McCarthy was referring to Hunt.

McDaniel, a Cheyenne minister and former Wyoming legislator, wrote the book to tell "an incredible story that so few people in Wyoming have ever heard." McDaniel says he has lived in Wyoming his entire life, but had not heard Hunt's story until about 10 years ago.

"Because of the way he died, and the tragedy surrounding his death, his life story was lost," says McDaniel.

The research for the project took 20 months to complete. McDaniel reviewed all of Hunt's papers at the American Heritage Center, including speeches, letters, diaries and photos. He traveled to Concord, N.C., to review the papers of Styles and Bridges, to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, and to the U.S. Senate Historical Office. He reviewed the papers of presidents Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower and of people who knew Hunt, including T.A. Larson, Joe Manning and Edward Crippa. He studied numerous contemporary newspapers and interviewed both of Hunt's children, including Buddy Hunt.

There was one invaluable resource that he was unable to obtain: the papers of McCarthy. McCarthy's papers are to remain sealed until the death of his daughter.

Lander's event, with an attendance of about 90, marked the third performance of "The Trial of Joe McCarthy" in Wyoming. The first performance, in Cheyenne, resulted in the conviction of all three senators, while Rock Spring's performance ended in a hung jury.

The trial also is expected to be performed in Sheridan and Casper, and a tentative date of Oct. 23 has been set for a performance in Washington, D.C.

The lead role of prosecuting attorney was played former Riverton Mayor John Vincent, an attorney.

Retired Wyoming Supreme Court justice Michael Golden played the judge. Witnesses included Bill Sniffin as Drew Pearson, the journalist who wrote "Washington Merry Go Round"; Geoff O'Gara as historian T.A Larson; Ernie Over as Glenn "Red" Jacoby, athletic director at the University of Wyoming from 1946-73; Palmer as Lt. Roy Blick, the detective involved in Buddy Hunt's case; and Jared Steinman as Sen. Roy Elson.

Rod Haper played McCarthy.

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