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Beverly Bell: The Miley murders and swift justice — death of golf star Marion Miley was devastating blow

The story had everything you could want: a young, gifted and nationally acclaimed athlete is brutally murdered at a swanky, southern country club in the middle of the night. The crime is reported on the front page of The New York Times and in newspapers around the world. A national manhunt for those responsible ensues.

From the first moment I heard of murdered golf star Marion Miley, I was hooked. When I finally sat down years later to write a novel based on her true story, I was absolutely certain of one thing: no one on the planet knew more about the talented 27-year-old, the tragic botched robbery in Lexington, Kentucky and the men who committed the crime than I did.

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As it turns out, I had more to learn.

If you’re not familiar with Marion Miley, you’re not alone. She’s probably the most famous golfer you’ve never heard of. Beginning in the mid 1930s, she ranked as one of the top players in the country. She won virtually every major amateur title, with the exception of the women’s national. Of the 13 women who would go on to form the Ladies Professional Golf Association, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2020, Marion played six of them. She beat all six. She was also a member of three U.S. Curtis Cup teams, an international amateur golf competition for women dating back to 1932.

On the night of her death, none of this mattered. Marion and her mother, Elsie, were living in the 2nd floor apartment at the Lexington Country Club. Her father, Fred Miley, had been the club’s golf pro, but had taken a better paying job at the Maketewah Country Club just across the river in Cincinnati. Fred visited his wife and only child every couple of weeks, while Marion remained with Elsie who was the club’s office manager. In the early hours of September 28, 1941, two men broke into the apartment in an attempted robbery. Marion was shot in the head at point-blank range and was killed instantly. Elsie sustained three bullet wounds to the stomach and died on October 1st.

Ten days after the shootings, the first of three men was arrested. Within a week and a half, two additional men were charged. The three were tried separately, found guilty and sentenced to death in a scant 10 days.

It took a while for that fact to sink in. Three trials and three death sentences – all in 10 days. How was that possible? An unexpected question kept re-surfacing that I couldn’t answer: Is swift justice the same as fair justice?

As Americans, we know we’re guaranteed a speedy trial. It’s written into the U.S. Constitution and specifically the 6th amendment, which protects a person’s right to a fair trial without unnecessary delays.

Swift justice is something else entirely. It can conjure up a picture far less desirable, of jury members rushing to judgment without carefully considering all the facts.

In 1943, the year when the three men convicted in the Miley murders died in the electric chair, 128 other prisoners throughout this country were also executed, according to the U.S. Department of Justice/Bureau of Justice Statistics. This compares to 22 in 2019.

In the Miley case, the appeal process lasted a little more than a year, for a total of 14 and a half months from sentencing to execution. In 2018, it was 19.8 years for the same process.

Did the Miley killers get fair treatment under the law? And why has the current timeline from sentencing to execution exploded?

Beverly Bell

There appear to be several reasons for the latter. First, more and more states are questioning the death penalty. Last year, New Hampshire became the 21st state to ban capital punishment. Four states have a governor-imposed moratorium on executions. Kentucky is one of 25 states with the death penalty, but it hasn’t executed anyone since 2008. What happens to those death row inmates in the meantime? Many end up waiting year after year for some type of resolution.

The issue of wrongful convictions also continues to grow. Organizations such as the Innocence Project and The Equal Justice Initiative have brought additional scrutiny and evidence to some of those with death penalty sentences, again, pausing the process.

Another impact? The shortage of drugs used in lethal injection executions. Some manufacturers who make these products don’t want them associated with the death penalty process. States can’t access the drugs and executions are delayed. Ohio is a perfect example. It’s under an unofficial death penalty moratorium, partly because the drugs aren’t available.

The biggest factor, however, in the long time lag between sentencing and execution is the entire appeal process itself. Those sentenced to death have many appeal avenues available to them, from jurisdiction courts all the way to the U.S Supreme Court. Post-conviction, they can raise and appeal a variety of specific issues, from new evidence to the competence of their original defense team. The death penalty is the ultimate punishment, usually meted out for the most heinous crimes. Since the punishment is permanent and irreversible, most jurisdictions want to get it right – even if that results in multiple and lengthy delays.

After years of research, there’s no doubt in my mind that the police arrested the men who committed the country club break-in. But this is where it gets complicated. Only one of the three shot and killed both Miley women (you’ll have to read the book to find out who).

Here’s also what I know: Lexington was in absolute shock over the death of one of its most celebrated citizens. At a time when many were still struggling to recover from the Great Depression, Marion brought a brilliant light of hope to the city. Smart and pretty, with big dimples and sun-streaked brown hair, she managed the unrelenting newspaper coverage that her golfing exploits heaped upon her like a savvy, media pro. Even though she was a Pennsylvania native who grew up in Florida and came to Kentucky as a 16-year-old, the Commonwealth proudly claimed her as one of their own. Life would get better; Marion was proof of that.

When she was killed, the city was on fire to get justice for her and her mother. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in a community like Lexington. And it certainly shouldn’t have occurred in a safe and exclusive place like the Lexington Country Club.

Marion Miley (Photo/USGA Museum)

As I reviewed court transcripts and newspaper accounts of the trials, it struck me that there simply wasn’t any room or time to step back. The entire process moved at a breakneck speed, allowing no one to take a breath and consider the direct responsibility of each of the three men in the murders.

Did all three men – Bob Anderson, Tom Penney and Raymond “Skeeter” Baxter – deserve to die for the crime when only one of the three did the actual killing? I’m not sure.

What I can say is that Marion’s death was a devastating blow – to the city of Lexington and the state of Kentucky, to women’s golf across the country, to celebrities like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope who played golf with her regularly and most of all, to Fred Miley who had taught his daughter the game, watched her reach the highest echelon of the sport and then lost his entire family in a callous, violent act. Regardless of the sentences given to the three men, nothing could have changed that sad reality for Fred and the rest of the world.

Beverly Bell is the author of, The Murder of Marion Miley, a novel based on a true story and published this year by South Limestone. She’s been interested in crime and justice for a long time, holding a bachelor of science from the College of Law Enforcement at Eastern Kentucky University as well as a bachelor of arts in communications.
Click here to order the book on Amazon or from the University Press of Kentucky here or from Joseph Beth in Cincinnati.

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