Judge George Hutton

Judge George Hutton, like most everyone in Los Angeles at that time, was from some place cold, namely Minnesota. Hutton received his law degree from the University of Minnesota and was admitted to the bar at age 23. He spent the next four years employed by a railroad, prior to heading for California. The next nine years were in private practice in Santa Monica, handling matters throughout southern California. During that time Hutton gained a reputation for his knowledge in estate law, and the laws involving western water rights, an issue on which the disputes are endless. He was elected to the California Superior Court in 1906 at the age of 42.

Hutton did not practice criminal law while in private practice, yet there’s little doubt he was the most educated person in his courtroom. Nor was there a doubt as to his strong sense of fairness as to everyone who appeared before him. He also was a judge who carefully studied lawyers’ arguments, even when that meant working long hours in the evenings or entire weekends.

As noted by one contemporary biographer, Judge Hutton possessed the necessary “ability, dignity, firmness and courage, and is clear and direct in his statements; his decisions are well considered and he has by these qualities and his uniform courtesy and patience earned the good will and confidence of the members of Los Angeles bar; while on the bench he is quiet and reserved and conducts his court with dignity. In chambers he is genial, cordial and approachable and in private life social and friendly.”  With “[b]lack hair, streaked with silver, thin, ascetic features,” Judge Hutton was a handsome man who had the right presence to command respect. He would be tested in ways he never imagined.

The trial transcript reveals that his biggest challenge was courtroom management.

Judge Hutton was not a newcomer to the bench. Though there is no record of how many criminal trials he presided over, he appeared to have had sufficient experience and the right temperament for such a lengthy, combative trial. Yet somehow, for some reason, things got out of control. So much so, that the four lawyers -Rogers & Appel and Fredericks & Ford- were trying the case all at once. When that happens not only does the court record become confused, it can confuse the jurors.

It became routine for one lawyer to make a motion (raise a legal point) to Hutton; before he could finish making his statement, he was interrupted by a second lawyer from the opposition; he was promptly talked over by a third lawyer who was co-counsel with the attorney who began things; in turn, he was cut in on by the fourth lawyer, co-counsel for the opposition. The trial transcript brings to mind a tag-team wrestling match staged for television by the World Wrestling Federation a century later. The biggest difference was that Judge Hutton was seated above the fray, rather than mingling on the mat with the combatants. All that said, the lawyers’ behavior toward one another was unacceptable; at times, beyond the pale. Judge Hutton didn’t seem to notice.

For more than five centuries in the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition, it’s the judge who has had responsibility for maintaining decorum in the courtroom. He/she does that by showing courtesy and respect to everyone– Hutton did do that well – and equally important, the judge must require the same of everyone else who plays a role in the court’s proceedings.

Nonetheless, the trial transcript reveals that Judge Hutton failed to demand proper comportment from the four lawyers.  Too many times, he permitted the lawyers to disrespect one another. Too many times, he failed to shut down endless, acrimonious banter among the attorneys. Too many times, he neglected to reprimand counsel for their tumultuous outbursts, insults and interruptions of their adversary.

Worse still, Judge Hutton ignored the repeated requests by Ford and Fredericks to excuse the jurors while the legal disputes, and frequent insults, took their course. That was not a good thing. The record is replete with meandering legal arguments mixed with irrelevant comments, snide remarks by counsel toward one another. The lack of decorum between the lawyers, as permitted by Judge Hutton, could not have made a favorable impression upon the jurors. More importantly, as experienced trial judges will confirm, one never knows how the lawyers’ misbehavior may impact the jurors’ deliberations.

At the end of the day, what is certain is that the in every criminal trial the state has the burden of proof, and the burden is a heavy one, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is the highest standard of proof in any trial, sometimes referred to as “to a moral certainty.” the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” is fraught with uncertainty.

Distractions during the prosecution’s presentation don’t help with the burden of proof. In short, unruly proceedings in a criminal trial rarely work to the state’s advantage. Judge Hutton showed no favoritism to either side, yet he failed to maintain the level of decorum required of a judge presiding at a jury trial.

D. A. John Fredericks & his Deputy, Joe Ford

District Attorney John Fredericks was a man of pride, energy, and conviction. Tall, thin and almost precariously erect, there was nothing graceful about his appearance. Generally well-groomed and attired, he had very fair skin and a wedge-shaped face, accented by round, wire-rimmed spectacles and dark, closely-cropped hair. John Fredericks was the incarnation of intensity. Though generally a buttoned-down sort of person, when an angry nerve impulse struck the wrong synapse in his brain, his rage was uncontrollable.

Fredericks was politically ambitious. Politicians are forever looking to the next election, and in 1911 Fredericks was gearing up for the California gubernatorial campaign of 1914. He had won his third four-year term as District Attorney in 1910. With all his campaigns for that office behind him, and the governor’s race two years hence, Fredericks had a new opponent to pummel. He wanted to crush organized labor in Los Angeles. Fredericks knew that the trial of the McNamara brothers had the potential to launch his campaign with a potent thrust. The current Governor Hiram Johnson, was too sympathetic to labor and no friend of the Times’ publisher, General Otis.  Fredericks was hoping to gain the support of the General for his gubernatorial campaign.

When the trial of the McNamara Brothers ended in a plea bargain agreement, Fredericks set his sights on Clarence Darrow. Within weeks of the brothers’ guilty pleas, Darrow was indicted for attempting to bribe a jury for a trial that never occurred.

Deputy D.A., Joe Ford was a better educated, more capable trial attorney, but he too had anger issues. Ford had –totally– bought into General Otis’s mindset that anyone connected to the American Labor Movement was evil; of necessity, that included Clarence Darrow. Ford’s disdain and contempt for the lawyer from Chicago was palpable. Though he didn’t dare show disrespect to Earl Rogers, from start of the trial, Ford had one snide remark after another for Darrow. His closing argument to the jury at the end of Darrow’s twelve-week bribery trial was incendiary, hurling insults that were “over the top” by any age’s standards.

Joe Ford’s decision to play a major role in Darrow’s bribery trial was ill-advised. Fredericks wasn’t much help in the courtroom; he was only there to make headlines. Even worse for Ford, there were times when Fredericks simply got in the way. The weight of the trial fell squarely upon the 33-year-old lawyer who had been practicing law little more than l0 years, versus the nearly 70 years combined of Rogers, Darrow and co-counsel, Horace Appel. Ford had lost his wife several months earlier and had to contend with the stress of insuring that his two infant children were properly cared for while he was in trial. Despite all that, Joe Ford volunteered to bite off more than he could chew.

Darrow & Rogers

When it became apparent that people of power in Los Angeles didn’t want “labor’s lawyer” to leave town, Darrow reached out for suggestions on defense counsel; time and again, one name surfaced, Earl Rogers. At that time, Earl Rogers was not merely the best-known lawyer in Los Angeles but in all of California. By this point in his career, after a string of successes in many high-profile matters, any trial in which Rogers was involved was an event.

Earl Rogers was sui generis. He was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.

Rogers was a celebrity lawyer with a following of his own. Nearly every case he handled in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, was before a standing-room-only crowd. Despite his troubled personal life and notoriety for after-hour antics, Rogers’ work ethic was legendary and his effectiveness as a champion of an accused was universally respected. Darrow could find no better “local counsel” than Earl Rogers.

No two people, nor two lawyers could be more unlike the other. Darrow, the sober, somber, philosophical crusader who cared little for the law but entered the arena for the sake of the struggling masses, versus Rogers, ever seeking laughter, battling unspoken demons, who cared only to be the champion of the forlorn individual in the clutches of the law. Darrow, the lawyer who loved reading classical literature, learned treatises on the social conditions of the working poor and contemporary poetry, and asked others to research the law for him, versus Rogers, the passionate student of the law, reading court decisions daily, and whose mind never stopped thinking about how best to gain an advantage for his clients in the courtroom. Darrow, the slovenly lawyer with grease stains on his tie and shirt who often looked like he had slept in his suit and needed a bath, versus Rogers, whose sartorial splendor was unrivaled, always appearing in court so well-groomed that his attire was often the first thing discussed in news reports of his trials. Darrow, the advocate extraordinaire whose words could melt the hearts of gruff men and bring them to tears, versus Rogers whose virtuosity in the courtroom had yielded mystifying acquittals, utilizing his voice and his brilliant legal mind. Finally, for Darrow it was all about social issues, for Rogers it was only about his individual clients. Regardless of their differences each needed and respected the other.

Darrow was fearful his career might end in disgrace, and needed help from this gifted local attorney. Rogers was fighting with an occasional loss of confidence; he was buoyed by the prospect of representing America’s most famous lawyer. Also working to his advantage, Rogers’ roots in Los Angeles were deep, he had a network of investigators, informants and drinking pals who kept him informed on anyone that might affect his law practice. Rogers’s stature what it was, and knowing the business and political players who would be delighted to see Darrow behind bars, it’s likely he expected being called upon by Darrow. Yet both men knew that if they were to have an attorney-client relationship it would be anything but routine.

Complicating their relationship further was the relationship between Ruby Darrow and Rogers’s daughter, Adela. They detested one another.

Lincoln Steffens

Lincoln Steffens was the first American investigative journalist to attain celebrity status. Curious, audacious, and charming, he rarely met a person who didn’t interest him, nor many people whom he did not eventually befriend. Small in stature, almost impish, eccentric, yet always “dressed to the nines,” he could disarm the worst curmudgeon.

Steffens was born into wealth and used his talent, energy and resources to expose the greed and corruption of those who exploited the working poor. He was one of the early “muckrakers” who chronicled the plight of the people whose muscle and sweat built America into an industrial powerhouse. Their life struggles were the subject of his career.

The subtext of most of Steffens’ investigative reports for the leading publications of the day was civilization’s age-old dilemma, central to organized society, a quandary often termed “the social question.” Steffens spent his career grappling with the eternal conflict arising from what founding father James Madison termed the “distinct interests in society.” Steffens sought to solve the puzzle of how are we to live together, and fairly share the profits generated by a prosperous economy? His goal was to educate his readers on the social dynamics and the tensions inherent in a growing economy, together with the resulting battle lines between the haves and have-nots. He tried never to demonize anyone.

Steffens was out of the country, traveling in Europe, when the Times’ building was destroyed, yet he quickly concluded that organized labor was responsible. When he learned of the arrest of the McNamara Brothers, he instinctively assumed they were guilty. With the meager facts available in newspaper reports and his own knowledge of the American Labor Movement, Steffens concluded that his old friend Clarence Darrow faced long odds against an acquittal of the two young brothers.  This was the story Steffens wished to dig into: Why would workers blow up the steel structures they had built? His imagination was ignited. Steffens was on a mission. From his perspective, “labor had done it and capital and the world should learn why,” in order to prevent such calamities in the future.   

Though he believed that the McNamaras were guilty, Steffens hoped to delve into something the robber barons had refused to acknowledge, namely that their hands were as bloody as labor’s. Thousands of employees had died in needless construction accidents caused by unsafe working conditions, and in violent confrontations instigated by employers through their agents provocateurs.  Upon arriving in Los Angeles in the summer of 1911, Steffens hoped to conduct a “parallel trial” of the actions of labor answering capital, then urge the two sides to declare a truce. His goal was reconciliation. Within a short time, Steffens found himself deeply involved in plea bargain negotiations, aiding Darrow in settling the charges against the McNamaras, avoiding the hangman’s noose. Not long afterward, Darrow himself was charged with jury tampering.

Steffens was witty, wise and most importantly, loyal to his good friend, Clarence Darrow. One of the most entertaining scenes in Darrow’s Nightmare is the cross-examination of Steffens by District Attorney Fredericks at Darrow’s bribery trial.

Detective William Burns

Detective William J. Burns was one of a handful of private investigators to become a household name during his career. Portrayed as a real-life Sherlock Holmes by his fans and accused of being a shameless self-promoter by his enemies, Burns relished his celebrity status. He was a publicity hound and cultivated his relationships with reporters by leaking information from his investigations. Equally important as his fame, the Burns Detective Agency provided guns, spies and agents provocateur for hire in the war between capital and labor.

Despite being headquartered in Darrow’s hometown of Chicago, Burns seemed to be everywhere. Purely by coincidence, before the sun set on the day following the Times bombing, Burns arrived in Los Angeles. He was there to speak before one of his major accounts, the American Bankers Association. Not long after his arrival in town, Burns was approached by Mayor Alexander who wanted Burns to investigate the bombing. That day, Burns and his detectives began to scour the trail of the bombers.

What Mayor Alexander didn’t know was that Burns had helpers in his investigation and knew more about the identity of the culprits than he let on. Burns had already been retained by the steel contractors. Several historians believe that Burns likely had an informant within the Iron Workers Union. Over the next several months, Burns and his agents pieced together key bits of evidence and by Saturday afternoon, April 22, 1911, Burns and his people, accompanied by the local police, invaded the Iron Workers national headquarters in Indianapolis.  J.J. was arrested and taken for an arraignment of charges before a local municipal court judge. At the arraignment hearing, documents signed by the governors of California and Indiana, requested the court to send J.J. to California to stand trial for dynamiting the Los Angeles Times. In short, he was wanted for murder.” J.J.’s request for a formal extradition hearing as guaranteed by Indiana law was denied and that evening, he was handcuffed to a detective from Los Angeles and began his journey west, by both car and train.

After J.J.’s court hearing, Burns returned to the Iron Workers headquarters where he was joined by local police and members of the press whom he had invited. One of the people who arrived with Burns was Walter Drew, lawyer for the steel contractors’ association. Drew searched through J.J.’s private desk, pouring over the union’s checkbook; rummaging through J.J.’s notes and papers; and scrutinizing duplicates of checks written the previous year. Despite lack of a search warrant, Drew proceeded with permission of the Indianapolis Police Department.

When Burns was finished in the headquarters’ offices, he went to the basement where there was a vault-like chamber linked to J.J.  Burns had his men force it open. Once the door was opened, they found a room packed with explosives. On the shelves were packages of dynamite, weighing nearly two hundred pounds, as well as a box of percussion caps and fuses. Most important, Burns found a box containing a dozen small alarm clocks that closely resembled one found in Los Angeles.

Moving swiftly and efficiently, with inside information from a union informant on his payroll, Burns had secured crucial evidence linking J.J. and his brother Jim to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, and the murder of twenty Times’ employees.