THE COURT OF LAST RESORT
A Historical View of Justice Denied
By Theodore Ponticelli, JD Staff Contributor
THE COURT OF LAST RESORT was formed by the late novelist
Erle Stanley Gardner, although it was not his premeditated goal. Most
remember Gardner as the creator of Perry Mason, the radio and
television portrayal of a shrewd and cunning defense lawyer who often
exposed the court to dramatics and then to the ultimate disclosure of
the actual perpetrator of the crime.
During the creation of The Court of Last Resort, the theme
resembles the mission of the Justice: Denied Magazine, the exposure of
wrongfully convicted persons of crimes for which they were not
responsible, even though circumstantial evidence and a jury's
conviction was contrary to the evidence.
During 1946, The Court of Last Resort resulted from a
three-part article published in the Saturday Evening Post. The article
was entitled, The Case Of Erle Stanley Gardner, written by Alva
Johnson, and it focused on Gardner's affinity for the underprivileged
and those falsely convicted by fabricated evidence and brought
attention to a corrupt criminal justice system.
The most dramatic case in chief involved William Marvin
Lindley, a derelict who had been arrested for sexual murder, soon after
adjudicated insane and sent to a state mental institution. Nearly a
year later, the deliberation of insanity was reversed and he was tried
for the heinous crime for which he was charged.
After thoroughly reviewing the case file and court
transcripts, Gardner reconstructed the crime, and determined that
Lindley couldn't have possibly committed the murder. The evidence not
only failed to prove the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt,
but instead did prove that it was physically impossible for him to have
committed the crime unless he could have been in two places at once.
According to the police evidence, the dying victim
identified Lindley as her assailant and the circumstantial evidence was
Gardner, along with Los Angeles Defense Attorney Alfred
Matthews, discovered compelling exculpatory evidence to clear Lindley
of the sexual murder and refuted the police manufactured evidence
against Lindley. With knowledge of the exculpatory evidence, Gardner
wrote to members of the California Supreme Court, Governor Earl Warren
and Lieutenant Governor Frederick F. Houser.
Evidently Gardner's letters impressed the Governor's office
and members of the Supreme Court, and on the day of Lindley's
execution, while the Governor was out of state, Lieutenant Governor
Hauser granted a reprieve and upon the governor's return, he commuted
the sentence to life imprisonment in order to give opportunity for
another investigation. Lindley in a short time was proven innocent and
Harry Steeger, publisher of Argosy Magazine, published
several cases concerning people who were convicted of crimes they did
not commit. The Argosy publication then gave rise to what was known as
a Board of Investigation and soon after Dr. LeMoyne Snyder, a Medical
Doctor and Attorney, joined the team, The Court of Last Resort was
born. Dr. Snyder was known for the text books he wrote concerning
homicide investigations. During the formation of the Court of Last
Resort, he was one of the founders along with Gardner. Dr. Leonorde
Keeler, known during that period as a pioneer and authority in the use
of the polygraph in criminal proceedings, was selected also as an
Other members of the Court of Last Resort, were Alex
Gregory, former President of the American Academy of Scientific
Investigators, another authority in polygraph who replaced Dr. Keeler
after his death shortly after the formation of the Court. Also members
were Raymond Schindler, Park Street, Marshal Houts, Harry Steeger and
Clark Sellers, a well-known handwriting examiner.
The first case formally reviewed by the Court involved
Clarence Boggie, an Oregon Lumberjack, serving a life term for murder.
The case was brought to the Court's attention by Reverend William A.
Gilbert, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Ventura, California,
and part-time volunteer chaplain at the Washington State Prison in
Walla Walla. Reverend Gilbert soon became an enthusiastic working
member of The Court of Last Resort.
Because of the Boggie case, the Court surprisingly added two
additional members, Tom Smith, retired Warden of Walla Walla
Penitentiary, a man characterized as an idealist with a passionate
desire for justice, and his former assistant, Bob Rhay. Together, they
became valuable members of the Court's investigative team.
Gardner did not neglect his writing and his commitments to
his publisher, although in his entire career, at first an attorney and
prosecutor, then novelist, nothing meant as much to him as The Court of
Last Resort and those falsely accused of crimes they did not commit.
The largest case the Court was initially involved with was
in Cleveland, Ohio, and known to many as the Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard
case. Dr. Sheppard was convicted of the murder of his pregnant wife. At
the time the Court became involved, Gardner thought if he was allowed
to polygraph members of the Sheppard family, and the results were
favorable, he would then arrange to administer a polygraph test to Dr.
Sheppard, who constantly protested his innocence. The modern polygraph
was relatively new during the time of the Sheppard case, and when
members of his family were subjected to a test, the results indicated
guilty knowledge. With the results, Gardner felt it was worthless to
polygraph Sam Sheppard. Because of the lie detector test result, The
Court of Last Resort withdrew from the case, even though Gardner and
others believed Dr. Sheppard was innocent.
If Dr. Sheppard was actually innocent, and the polygraph
tests of members of the family reflected guilty knowledge of the
murder, then the polygraph had to have produced false positive test
results. More than likely, this was the case.
Gardner and members of the Court reviewed their purpose and
activity. Until then the purpose was to improve the administration of
justice, but the Court gradually had come to be devoted solely to
investigate cases of men who claimed to be innocent and wrongly
convicted. Thus, buried under an avalanche of cases, at least eight
thousand of which had preliminary investigations. Gardner believed that
money had been thrown away in their attempt to investigate all the
cases, whether or not they at first shed a light of hope that some were
innocent, many were not. Members of the Court decided to screen the
thousands of cases before a decision was made as to which case had the
merit to investigate and prove the inmate's innocence.
At this critical point and with the help of Argosy Magazine,
readers were asked to write letters and recommend to the Court what
should be done to improve the Criminal Justice System. Thousands of
letters were received, and many contained good advice. However the
majority of the writers were friends and relatives of the various
inmates who claimed innocence. This project threw the Court into
disarray and the Argosy staff felt Gardner meant well, but the magazine
was not getting its money's worth with Gardner writing for them, and
soon disassociated their relationship with The Court of Last Resort.
During 1960, Gardner retired from the Court and was replaced
by Gene Lowell of the Denver Post. Unfortunately the Court took a
different viewpoint after Gardner's withdrawal. Slowly the Court died a
natural death. Although in spirit the Court of Last Resort remains in
the minds of honest and civic minded Americans who have witnessed or
experienced a corrupt criminal justice system from dishonest law
enforcement personnel to the judges who adjudicate many of the cases
that lack sufficient evidence to convict a defendant of crimes of which
he or she was charged and convicted.
If one person stands convicted of a crime he or she did not
commit, that is one too many and the system continues fall into decay.
Contact Theodore P. Ponticelli: TPonti9379@aol.com
THEODORE P. PONTICELLI First North American Rights