Immediately after robbing a nearby grocery, Milo Dorst entered the 5143 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield grocery of Gustave Adolph Smith on December 3, 1924, pulled a gun, and announced his intention to rob the store. Smith responded by charging Dorst with a large knife. Dorst fired, killing Smith. Fleeing, Dorst suffered a stab wound in the back from the knife thrown at him by the dying Smith.
Escaping without any money, Dorst fled to Youngstown, Ohio, and then to Cleveland. He was arrested there on December 6, after going to Lakeside Hospital for treatment of his wound and being recognized by a nurse who had seen the notification sent there by Pittsburgh police.
Under a “severe grilling,” Dorst confessed to police; he also confessed to numerous other robberies committed since being released on parole in June 1924.
While jailed, Dorst attempted suicide on December 7, 1924, by reopening the stab wound made by Smith’s knife.
At trial, Dorst claimed his confession was coerced and that drunkenness prevented him from recalling the events leading to his arrest. He was convicted of first-degree murder on May 13, 1925.
While death sentences had been mandatory for first degree murder convictions since Pennsylvania’s murder statute was enacted in 1794, the Split Verdict Act (P.L. 759, May 14, 1925), which gave jurors discretion to impose a life or death sentence upon conviction, was signed into law the day after Dorst’s conviction.*
Dorst used that statutory change in arguing, unsuccessfully, for clemency.
After his appeal was rejected (Commonwealth v. Dorst, 285 Pa. 232, 1926) and vigorous commutation efforts by his wife and mother, president of the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, failed, Milo Dorst was executed on May 24, 1926.
* The enactment of the Split Verdict Act had the effect of sharply curtailing the use of the death penalty on white offenders and, relatedly, the use of executive clemency. In the 35 years prior to its enactment, approximately 40% of all death sentences were commuted. In the 35 years after its enactment, only 7% of death sentences were commuted. By effectively eliminating the use of the death penalty for all but the most heinous white defendants, the use of commutations was unnecessary.