Image: Descendent of Nisqually Indian Chief Leschi holds his portrait.
Ted S. Warren  /  AP
Cynthia Iyall, a descendant of the sister of Nisqually Indian Chief Leschi, holds a portrait of the chief on Nov. 30, in Lakewood, Wash., next to a monument that marks a spot 300 yards from where he was hanged in 1858.
updated 12/11/2004 12:27:15 PM ET 2004-12-11T17:27:15

Chief Leschi of the Nisqually Indian tribe was exonerated by a historical court Friday, nearly a century and a half after he was hanged for the death of a militia soldier in what is now Washington state.

The unanimous verdict by a seven-judge panel isn’t binding legally, but it drew cheers and tears from hundreds of people who gathered at the state history museum to hear the decision.

Leschi (pronounced LESH-eye) was hanged in 1858 for killing Col. A. Benton Moses of the territorial militia during the region’s Indian war of 1855.

The historical court, led by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, ruled that if Leschi did in fact kill Moses, they were lawful combatants in a time of war, so a murder charge was not justified.

“I’m just happy. This is really about the future,” said Cynthia Iyall, a descendant of Leschi’s sister and chairwoman of the Committee to Exonerate Chief Leschi. “This is for all the kids ... they need to know who that man was and what truthfully happened to him.”

Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, a former prosecutor who helped represent Leschi’s descendants before the historical court, agreed that it was important to establish the truth.

“We cannot bring Leschi back to life, and we cannot restore Leschi to his land. We can, we must, restore his good name.”

Over the years, everyone from Leschi’s executioner to respected historians had questioned his guilt.

He had fought to preserve his tribe’s way of life: The government had consigned the Nisqually to a high forest, cut off from their homes by the Nisqually River. The government later returned the tribe to a spot along the river about 50 miles south of Seattle.

After Leschi’s first trial ended with a hung jury, the judge in the second trial refused to instruct jurors that killing an enemy soldier in war is not considered murder. Leschi was convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, the territorial Supreme Court refused to consider new evidence showing Leschi was miles away when Moses was killed.

The Army refused to execute Leschi, as military leaders believed the rules of war should have prevented him from being charged with murder.

Instead, Pierce County authorities oversaw Leschi’s execution Feb. 19, 1858. His hangman, Charles Grainger, said later: “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man, and I believe it yet.”

Nisqually Indians have kept Leschi’s legacy alive by telling his story to their children and grandchildren, and his name appears on schools, monuments and even a Seattle neighborhood.

Alexander proposed holding the historical court because he didn’t think the current state Supreme Court has the power to overturn a decision by its territorial predecessor.

Nisqually tribal member Andreya Squally, 17, who attended the trial, recalled arguing about Leschi at school, insisting he had been unjustly convicted.

“They said it was right because it was in the history book,” Squally said. “Now they have to change the history books.”

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