Justice: Denied -- The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted

 

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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 then overwhelming.

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 released.

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 important member.

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

Justice Denied

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