Edgar Award Winner: True stories of miscarriages of justice, legal battles, and landmark reversals, by the creator of Perry Mason. In 1945, Erle Stanley Gardner, noted attorney and author of the popular Perry Mason mysteries, was contacted by an overwhelmed California public defender who believed his doomed client was innocent. William Marvin Lindley had been convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl along the banks of the Yuba River, and was awaiting execution at San Quentin. After reviewing the case, Gardner agreed to help—it seemed the fate of the “Red-Headed Killer” hinged on the testimony of a colorblind witness. Gardner’s intervention sparked the Court of Last Resort. The Innocence Project of its day, this ambitious and ultimately successful undertaking was devoted to investigating, reviewing, and reversing wrongful convictions owing to poor legal representation, prosecutorial abuses, biased police activity, bench corruption, unreliable witnesses, and careless forensic-evidence testimony. The crimes: rape, murder, kidnapping, and manslaughter. The prisoners: underprivileged and vulnerable men wrongly convicted and condemned to life sentences or death row with only one hope—the devotion of Erle Stanley Gardner and the Court of Last Resort. Featuring Gardner’s most damning cases of injustice from across the country, The Court of Last Resort won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Originating as a monthly column in Argosy magazine, it was produced as a dramatized court TV show for NBC.
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About the Author
Erle Stanley Gardner (1889–1970) was an author and lawyer who wrote nearly 150 detective and mystery novels. Awarded the honor of Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1962 and hailed by Evelyn Waugh as “the best American writer,” he ranks as one of the most prolific specialists of crime fiction due to his popular alter ego, lawyer-detective Perry Mason. A self-taught lawyer, Gardner was admitted to the California bar in 1911 and began defending poor Chinese and Mexicans as well as other clients. Eventually his writing pushed his law career aside, but as proven in his Edgar Award–winning The Court of Last Resort , Gardner never gave up on the cases of wrongly accused individuals or unjustly convicted defendants.
Read an Excerpt
The Court of Last Resort
By Erle Stanley Gardner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1954 Erle Stanley Gardner
All rights reserved.
Man in general doesn't appreciate what he has until he is deprived of it. Then he starts to miss it. He takes good health for granted until sickness comes along. He takes three meals a day for granted until some unusual circumstance makes him go hungry. Liberty is only a term until he is deprived of it, and then he begins to realize what it means to have freedom of motion and freedom of choice.
Strange as it may seem, a diametrically opposite situation led to the origin of the Court of Last Resort.
I learned to value liberty not by having it taken away but by having such a marvelous demonstration of the advantages of freedom that I began to think what it must mean to be deprived of freedom.
In order to understand this somewhat paradoxical situation it is going to be necessary to touch on a most unusual murder case and give a bit of personal history.
The murder case is that of William Marvin Lindley, described in newspapers and magazines as "The Red-Headed Killer"; the personal history relates to a biographical sketch written by the late Alva Johnston which ran several installments in The Saturday Evening Post. This biographical sketch was entitled "The Case of Erle Stanley Gardner," and included some of the spectacular and unorthodox methods which I used in connection with the trial of cases when I was a practicing attorney.
I have always claimed that an attorney is not necessarily bound to confine his cross-examination of a hostile witness to questions and answers on the witness stand. If a witness is certain of an identification, he should be absolutely certain of it. He may testify under oath with all the positive sincerity in the world that the defendant is the man he saw running away from the scene of the crime two years ago, but if an attorney can get him to point to one of the assistant prosecutors by making the witness feel that the man at whom he is pointing is actually the defendant in the case, the witness's actions speak louder than words.
Of course, courts resent attempts to mislead a witness, so an attorney may well find himself in a position where the procedure, by which he might demonstrate that a witness is mistaken on a matter of identification, may be frowned upon by the court.
Therefore the problem of getting a witness to belie his words by actions, without violating the ethics of the profession or the rules of court is, at times, a rather tricky business.
During the days when I first engaged in the practice of law, legal ethics were not as sharply defined nor as rigidly enforced as they now are, and, with the singular optimism of youth, I was more confident of my own interpretation of what was proper.
I mention these matters because the early portion of my legal career, during which I was trying to build up a law practice in a city where I was virtually without friends or friendly contacts, was punctuated with spectacular incidents which made colorful copy for a biographer. As I expressed it at the time in a letter to my father, "I have built up a law practice in which I am dealing with large numbers of clients of all classes — except the upper and middle class."
Eventually my courtroom tactics attracted sufficient attention so that my practice became confined exclusively to clients of the upper and middle class, but Alva Johnston found the earlier chapters of my legal escapades much more interesting and therefore emphasized them in considerable detail.
Johnston also emphasized a quixotic streak which has always been part of my nature: to champion the cause of the underdog, particularly if he is without friends, without money, and his cause seems to be utterly hopeless.
By the time Johnston had finished stringing colorful incidents into his biographical sketch, his audience might well have received the impression that I made a habit of entering the lists on behalf of penniless defendants who were in hopeless predicaments, and by legal legerdemain could cause the doors of prison to swing wide open. The result was that just about every hopeless case in the United States was dumped in my lap in a deluge of fan mail.
Among these cases was that of William Marvin Lindley. This case was sent to me by Al Matthews, Jr., a Los Angeles attorney at law who has since become affiliated with the Public Defender's Office, but who, at that time, was a free lance. He had interested himself on behalf of Lindley after Lindley's conviction.
Lindley was at the time in the condemned row at San Quentin awaiting execution. He had been convicted of a brutal sex murder. The evidence against him was so overwhelming that until Al Matthews came along no one had extended the slightest sympathy or had bothered to give the case very much detailed study.
Al Matthews wrote me that he felt absolutely convinced Lindley was innocent, that he had been the victim of a bizarre combination of circumstances, and begged me to study the case.
At the time it seemed to me that every mail was bringing in a dozen similar pleas, but there was something about Al Matthews' letter, a certain sincerity that attracted my attention. I studied the outline Matthews sent down.
The murder had occurred during the aftermath of the great depression, and the characters who were involved in the crime were, for the most part, people who lived in more or less temporary camps along the banks of the Yuba River in California. One gathered the impression that these were persons of limited funds, limited education, and, in some instances, limited intelligence.
Some young girls, around the age of adolescence, had gone in swimming in the Yuba River. As a bathing suit, the victim of the crime wore simply a cotton dress.
William Marvin Lindley, a redhead, was at the time operating a boathouse on the banks of the river.
The victim of the crime had finished her swimming, changed her clothes, gone into the house where her folks were living, made some remarks to her father, then had gone out again.
Some twenty minutes or half an hour later she was found in a dying condition. She had evidently been attacked after putting up a terrific struggle. She was able to sob out to her father the statement that it was "that old red-headed liar in the boathouse, the old red-headed liar." Some time later, and without ever clarifying this statement, she died.
A sheepherder, a young boy whose intelligence was not keen, to say the least, was herding sheep on the other side of the Yuba River, a distance of some two hundred yards. This sheepherder had sat under a tree, watching the girls while they were swimming. They left the water and entered the boathouse. Later on he noticed one of the girls go toward home and another girl went down to the water to wash her feet.
Prior to this time, a man, whom the sheepherder identified as Lindley, had been standing in the willows. He, also, was watching the girls swimming. After the victim had started back toward the levee, the sheepherder stated he had seen her struggling with "Red," the man who had been standing in the bushes watching her. They "went down behind the willows."
The sheepherder identified the man as "Red" Lindley, the defendant. He based his identification in part upon the color of clothes that Lindley was wearing that afternoon.
At the time of the trial (and it should be noted that Lindley was not represented at this trial by Al Matthews, who didn't enter the case until after conviction) Lindley tried to produce an alibi. It was a nice alibi except that it broke down for the very period when the crime was being committed.
Apparently none of the persons connected with the case carried a watch, and it was necessary to work out time by depending upon the best estimates of the witnesses, starting from an event which had been pretty well established in the day's schedule.
All in all, Lindley's case seemed hopeless, merely another drab sex crime in which the culprit had become so inflamed at the sight of the adolescent girls bathing in the river that he lost all self-control, and despite the fact that there were witnesses who watched him and who could identify him, proceeded to go completely mad with lust.
Al Matthews had taken over, conducted an investigation and had filed a writ of habeas corpus in the State Supreme Court, also an application for a writ of error Coram Nobis, and a writ of Coram Vobis. Inasmuch as the Supreme Court had already considered the case on appeal and affirmed the conviction and sentence of death, it was necessary for the attorneys to resort to these last named, little used, hardly understood writs in order to have even a leg to stand on.
Enough of a showing had been made so that the Supreme Court had appointed a referee to take testimony, and then peculiar things began to develop. For one thing it turned out that the sheepherder was color-blind; and while he had stated that he had recognized the defendant by the tan-colored khaki clothes he had been wearing, it appeared by the time of the habeas corpus hearing that this witness was prone to describe virtually every color as tan. Not only was he colorblind but it developed that he had barely enough intelligence to enable him to testify. At one time he had told the referee that he did not know what it meant to testify under oath. He had identified a brown and white dress, worn by one of the women who was attending the referee's hearing, as black. He had then been asked to identify colored cards at a distance approximately equal to that at which he had seen the murderer, and he had identified a yellow card as being white, a gold one as being brown, an orange one as red, and a gray one as blue. At another time he had said that green was blue, gold was white, light brown was white, and pink was red.
The Supreme Court carefully reviewed the facts in the case as brought out in the hearing before the referee, co-ordinated those facts with the evidence in the case, and decided that Lindley had been properly convicted and must go to the gas chamber.
The date of execution was finally set. (There had been one or two reprieves while the various legal matters were pending, but now the date had been set, and Governor Earl Warren, who had been forced to leave the state temporarily on business, had pointed out to the lieutenant governor who would be in charge during Governor Warren's absence that he wanted no further reprieves in the Lindley case. The execution was to go ahead as scheduled.)
That execution date was but a short distance away. As I remember it, a matter of a week or ten days.
In any event, I telephoned Al Matthews, told him I would study the case, and he sent his wife down to see me, bringing with her the trial transcript and a few facts which would enable me to understand something of the nature of the case.
It was a long and involved transcript, and I labored through it, trying to become familiar with the case from the testimony of the witnesses and the study of the records.
There was one significant thing which Al Matthews had uncovered. There had been another red-headed hop picker in the vicinity on the day of the crime. That hop picker had not been working on the day of the murder. He had shown up later with marks on his face which could well have been made by a girl's fingernails. He had reportedly, in a drunken brawl that night, stated that he had been the one who had committed the murder, and he had mysteriously disappeared the next morning without even calling for his pay check. Some of those facts could be verified positively.
That was the case in a nutshell, and William Marvin Lindley was to die.
I carefully studied the evidence submitted by Lindley in support of his defense, and there was no question but what his alibi broke down at the very time the crime was being committed. The attorneys for the prosecution had made the most of that.
So then, having completed a study of the transcript, I decided to tackle the case from another angle.
Strange as it may seem, apparently it had never occurred to anyone to examine Lindley's alibi with reference to the movements of the murderer, whoever that murderer might have been, on the day in question.
I decided to do this and so found it necessary to work out a diagram of the scene of the crime according to distances, and to start co-ordinating the activities of the various people in relation to their contact with other people, forming a species of time schedule that was dependent entirely upon events rather than upon guesswork as to the hour, or the position of clock hands.
Once that was done, a very startling fact became manifest.
At the exact time witnesses had seen the murderer standing in the willows, watching the girls swimming, the defendant, William Marvin Lindley, had been riding in an automobile with the father of the murdered girl.
Again and again I went over this schedule and there simply couldn't be any other possible answer. The evidence given by the father himself, the evidence given by other witnesses, showed that this must be true. There wasn't any escape from it.
At that time there was no opportunity to do anything by strictly legal methods. Lindley's execution was almost a matter of hours. There was no time to make a formal appearance, no time to set in motion any type of legal proceedings even if it had been possible to conceive of any type of legal proceedings which had not been previously tried. The defendant had had the benefit of all the writs that the most adroit and ingenious attorney could possibly have conjured up.
There was only one thing to do.
I sent a letter to each justice of the State Supreme Court; I sent copies of those letters to the State's attorney general; I sent letters to the office of the Governor, pointing out page by page in the transcript the manner in which this synthetic schedule had been built up, making all due allowances for the greatest margin of time-elapse possible. Under this schedule there was no question that at the very moment several witnesses had seen this mysterious man standing in the willows, the man who was positively identified as being the murderer of the victim, the defendant, William Marvin Lindley, had been riding in the automobile with the girl's father some miles from the scene of the crime.
Afterward, and entirely off the record, I learned something of the scene of hectic activity which followed the receipt of these various letters. Still off the record, as I understand it, members of the California Supreme Court unanimously requested Lieutenant Governor Fred Howser, who was in charge at the time, not to permit the execution to take place until there could be a further investigation, and another stay of execution was granted.
The case began to attract quite a bit of attention. The press picked up the fact that I had written a letter in connection with it and set forth some of my contentions.
It will be noted that I am commenting in detail on the Lindley case because of its repercussions. The Lindley case standing by itself, however, is well worth serious study by anyone who is at all interested in the administration of criminal law.
Simply consider the facts of the case at the time Al Matthews, Jr., had taken an interest in it:
The girl had been found in a dying condition. She had made a statement which certainly pointed to the defendant Lindley as the perpetrator of the crime. The police had investigated and found an eyewitness who positively identified Lindley as the man who had been waiting in the bushes, watching the girls swimming, who had subsequently grabbed one of the girls, and, after a terrific struggle, had dropped down out of sight behind the bushes.
Lindley had claimed an alibi, trying to prove that he wasn't there at the time of the commission of the crime. That attempted alibi seemed to have broken down for the exact period that the crime was taking place. Lindley was without funds. An attorney had been appointed by the court to defend him, and the jury, evidently considering Lindley a murderer and a liar, had promptly brought in a verdict finding him guilty of first-degree murder, with no recommendation, thereby automatically making it mandatory that a death sentence be imposed.
I will never know what peculiar hunch attracted Matthews to the case, because a cursory study of the evidence would certainly-indicate that the defendant was guilty, but when Matthews began to dig he uncovered new evidence showing that the eyewitness, who had identified Lindley largely because of the color of his clothes, was color-blind; and that another red-headed man, who had been in the vicinity of the crime, had scratch marks on his face, and, in a drunken condition the very night of the crime, had admitted that he was the perpetrator of the offense.
Excerpted from The Court of Last Resort by Erle Stanley Gardner. Copyright © 1954 Erle Stanley Gardner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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