Chronicle 2, Part 19: A Traitor to His Blood 

Press coverage of the arrest and trial is sensational, and many white readers thrill at the tales that seem ripped from melodramatic accounts of the Old West. The coverage neither prevents the Osage from pursuing justice nor White from recognizing that most of the killings committed during the Reign of Terror remain unsolved. White is also aware of the corruption permeating the judicial system and heeds the prosecutor’s concerns that Hale cannot get a fair trial at the state level. The Roan case offers a possible way to move the trial to federal court, as Roan was killed on an allotment. Even during trial preparations, plotting continued, as evidenced by the aborted plot to shoot a witness for the prosecution, Katherine Cole. Ernest, being Hale’s main target, is kept hidden by White’s team. No matter the evidence, Mollie continues to doubt Ernest’s guilt. 

In March 1926, the judge sides with the defense, ordering the trial to take place in state court. Sheriff Freas re-arrests Hale and Ramsey, so they won’t be free while the appeal makes its way through the courts. In the meantime, there is a preliminary hearing, at which one of Hale’s lawyers says that Ernest is his client and that he wants to speak with him. Against the prosecution’s vehement objections, Ernest talks with them. 

The next day, Ernest recants his entire confession. As their case crumble, the prosecution decides to try Ernest first, hoping to shore up their case. When it begins in May, Hale, Ernest, and Ramsey all testify that the Bureau agents tortured them to gain their cooperation, however, the allegations are quickly disproven. The prosecution calls self-serving Kelsie Morrison. His devastating testimony implicates Hale, Ramsey, and the Burkhart brothers. During the trial, Mollie learns her youngest daughter, Anna, is gravely ill. The child dies of natural causes, and her loss is devastating to her mother. 

Several days after his daughter’s death, Ernest asks to meet prosecution lawyer John Leahy. Ernest says he is done lying and asks Leahy to arrange for lawyer Flint Moss to represent him. In court the next day, Ernest changes his plea to guilty, which he does without consideration for clemency or immunity. He tells the court he wants to confess. The judge accepts his changed plea after he swears that he was never tortured by the Bureau agents. On June 21, 1926, Ernest is sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. 


The pace of the middle section accelerates as it turns from the investigation, with its many dead-ends and false starts, to the prosecution. This narrative compression protects the focus on the section’s protagonist, Tom White, even as other people, like the prosecutors, arguably become more responsible for the evolving action. The presentation of White as immune to the generalized racism of the period and as committed to the ideal of justice is challenged when Ernest, Hale, and Ramsey accuse him and his team of using torture as a means of eliciting their cooperation. Readers are primed to doubt these charges, but the extent of Hale’s influence is demonstrated when the U.S. Senator from Oklahoma agitates for his removal from the Bureau. These false accusations offer the section’s sharpest contrast between the unscrupulous Hale, willing to circulate vile slanders, and the honorable White.  

With the question of jurisdictions, which determine where the various trials will be held, the nation’s history of valuing and undermining Native American sovereignty becomes a part of the narrative again. The essence of tribal sovereignty, and the reason that Native American tribes can be called nations, inheres in the right to self-government. While the United States has not always respected this principle in a robust manner, it means that a crime which occurs on tribal land would be adjudicated in a federal, as opposed to a state, court. Throughout Killers of the Flower Moon, the limits of tribal sovereignty emerge as the U.S. government and the state of Oklahoma both seek ways to maintain control over the Osage nation. 

Ernest’s oscillations shape the action of the chapter, as he first recants his confession and then, later, confesses again, this time changing his plea from not guilty to guilty. In the previous chapter, Ernest had appeared to be the conspiracy’s weak link—and this vulnerability means he stands trial first. Even in the middle of legal proceedings, Hale is able to exert undue influence over his nephew but, after the death of his youngest child, something changes in Ernest. He fires the lawyer Hale hired and admits his culpability. The shift of allegiance is surprising, perhaps even to Hale, but it comes too late for Mollie, who has begun to grasp the unthinkable, namely that her husband might have wanted to have her killed. Ernest is the only character in the criminal conspiracy who voluntarily accepts responsibility for his actions and desires to admit his actions publicly. In so doing, he also becomes one of the few individuals in the narrative who appears to undergo a moral awakening, although his later behavior will reveal the limits to this transformation. Nonetheless, if a conspiracy relies on secrecy and lies to thrive, the choice to confess one’s actions in open court suggests that its power has begun to wane. Given the opening emphasis on the role of the newspapers in publicizing these trials, Ernest confesses not only to the court, but also to the nation as a whole.