The murder defendant had been dead nearly 150 years. But that didn't matter to the judges, the defense attorneys, the prosecutors, witnesses, Indian tribal elders and the rest...

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TACOMA — The murder defendant had been dead nearly 150 years. But that didn’t matter to the judges, the defense attorneys, the prosecutors, witnesses, Indian tribal elders and the rest of the 200 people gathered yesterday at the Washington State Historical Museum.

What they wanted to determine was whether Leschi, the historic chief of the Nisqually Tribe, had a fair trial in the first place. Should he have been convicted for killing a Washington Territorial militia soldier — a conviction that resulted in his hanging at age 50?

In a first-of-its-kind judicial review, four lawyers and 11 witnesses defended Leschi and urged the Historical Court of Inquiry and Justice to exonerate the Nisqually leader. Supporters handed out medallions that read: “Free Leschi’s spirit.”

And that’s what seven judges did.

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Leschi, they ruled, should not have been tried for murder because the slaying of A.B. Moses had occurred during a time of war. The court’s finding is not a legal ruling, but, as a historic decision, it will have historical consequences, said Thurston County Superior Court Judge Daniel Berschauer. “I applaud the historical consequences,” he said.

Cynthia Iyall, a Leschi supporter, told the judges that the exoneration would add a new paragraph to a story, a new chapter in history books, a new panel in museum exhibits.

Leschi, a revered leader to his Nisqually people, is a known namesake throughout the state. But his name in the historical record, his supporters said, has been a source of sorrow and anger, and historians have long questioned the original verdict. With the exoneration, it is time for the world to know Leschi means “warrior, leader, hero, innocent,” said Nisqually tribal chairman Dorian Sanchez.

History revisited

TV coverage:
The historical court’s proceedings will be broadcast on TVW, the state’s public-affairs network, at 7 tonight and at 8 Monday night.

Leschi was hanged on Feb. 19, 1858. He had been arrested and charged with killing Moses during an ambush at Connell’s Prairie in Pierce County. Earlier, Leschi had been appointed tribal chief by Gov. Isaac Stevens for the purposes of negotiating a treaty.

When Leschi balked at the treaty’s proposed Nisqually reservation, hostilities flared between Indian tribes and Stevens.

Stevens secured a volunteer militia. On Oct. 31, 1855, a militia group was ambushed and Moses was killed.

Stevens eventually blamed Leschi for the killing and for instigating the subsequent Puget Sound Indian Wars.

Yesterday’s tribunal was made up of state Supreme Court justices, Superior Court judges, appellate court judges and a tribal judge.

The court was convened by the Legislature, which adopted resolutions asking for the review. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander had wanted an adversarial process.

To that end, a pair of attorneys from the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office presented the government’s case.

Alexander said the court was not bound by contemporary rules of an appellate court, so the justices did what the defense asked, looking beyond the available record to consider subsequent history.

“They found it the right way,” said one man as he walked out of the makeshift courtroom in the museum’s auditorium.

“Relief,” said Iyall, who cried when the verdict was read.

Carl Hultman, one of the prosecutors, said it was an opportunity for history to be heard.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or