Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Page 7



26th DA Gets Easy Ride in First Two Elections, Then Encounters Peril




Twenty-Fifth in a Series


JOHN D. FREDERICKS was the first Los Angeles County district attorney to be elected in the 20th Century and the first DA to attain three consecutive terms. He was the last to be nominated at a political convention and, fours year later, was the last to run on a partisan political ticket.

He was elected district attorney in 1902 in a quiet race, reelected in 1906 in one that was not only quiet but nearly silent, and reelected yet again in 1910, this time in a high-decibel, brutal contest in which the challenger accused him, among other things, of having compounded a felony.

Fredericks, as the 1914 nominee of the Republican Party for governor, was unable to unseat incumbent Hiram Johnson, but later gained election to Congress.

The reason the 1902 race was tranquil is that the political climate was such that it was a foregone conclusion that the nominee of the Republican Party would win.

At a session of the Republican county convention on Aug. 21, described the next day in the Los Angeles Times as one “[d]evoid of special interest or excitement,” Fredericks gained the nod for DA over Byron L. Oliver by a vote of 487-276. Oliver had also lost the nomination in 1898.

An Aug. 23 editorial in the Times says:

“Fredericks is a soldier [captain in the Spanish-American War], and a lawyer with experience in the District Attorney’s Office. He ought to win, easily, over his Democratic opponent, whoever he may be.”

The opponent turned out to be Robert J. Adcock, whose campaign was less than vociferous. He was chosen at the Democrats’ county convention on Aug. 27. Presiding over that conclave was a former district attorney, George S. Patton.

Whatever might have been said for Adcock’s candidacy wasn’t, at least in print. The Herald, long the Democrats’ voice, was now speaking Republicanese, as were the Times and Express, long conversant in that language. (Ironically, the Times’s owner, Harrison Gray Otis, in 1904 secretly purchased the Herald, returning it to the Democratic camp, in hopes of gaining influence over the party he had staunchly opposed.)

The Oct. 28, 1902, issue of the Times contains this recitation of Frederick’s campaign talk the night before:

“J. D. Fredericks, for District Attorney, made a plea for the young man. He said he’d get over being thirty-four years of age soon enough, and he didn’t think it a crime anyway. Somebody told him he was like Abraham Lincoln. He thought of the many bright things he had done, but couldn’t recall the one that made the hit, and was told that he was as homely as Lincoln.”

Fredericks pulled 16,908 votes in the Nov. 4 general election and Adcock drew 8,951. The Republican Party captured all of the Los Angeles county offices that year, as well as winning all of the Assembly and Senate races in the county.

In his first term, Fredericks, the county’s 26th district attorney, hired as a deputy fellow Republican John A. Donnell, the county’s 24th DA. Donnell had likewise employed the 18th holder of the top spot in the office, Republican George Holton, as his chief deputy…and Democrat Henry C. Dillon, the 23rd district attorney, had engaged the services of Democrat J.R. Dupuy, 20th DA, as a deputy.

Donnell was assisted in a murder case in 1903 by Fredericks’s immediate predecessor, James Rives, acting as special counsel. Assisting Earl Rogers in the defense was James McLachlan, who preceded Dillon as DA and was then a member of Congress.

Adcock, who was admitted to practice in 1891, was to be heard from in future years…but not in a favorable context. He disappeared from Los Angeles on Oct. 28, 1907, and it was feared by friends that he had committed suicide. However, press reports on Christmas day revealed he had been found in Mexico. It seems that the 1902 candidate for DA had pilfered $1,229 from a trust. His brother had arranged to pay that sum to the surety on the attorney’s bond with the agreement that criminal charges would not be filed. Adcock returned to Los Angeles and resumed his practice.

In 1906, a campaign for the post of district attorney was virtually non-existent. Fredericks was nominated by the GOP without opposition. The Democratic Party nominated him, too. So did an ad hoc group, the Non-Partisan County Organization. And the Prohibition Party decided not to put up a candidate for the office.

Only the Socialist Party ran a rival contender: A.M. Holston, who challenged Fredericks to a series of debates. The incumbent, needless to say, did not accept the invitation.

Fredericks did, however, take on a Superior Court judge, B.N. Smith, over remarks the jurist had uttered from the bench on Oct. 8 assailing the Office of District Attorney for moving to dismiss charges against a defendant notwithstanding that a jury was waiting to hear the case. Smith refused to allow Fredericks’s deputy, Donnell, to provide an explanation.

The DA came to court the next day to put a statement on the record. He did so in connection with moving to dismiss two other cases...a chore not ordinarily undertaken personally by the head of the office. A story in the Times on Oct. 10 recounts:

“In moving the dismissal of these cases,” said the District Attorney, “I desire to call the court’s attention to the condition of our calendar. We have just twelve cases on the criminal calendar of the greatest county in the State of California. An examination of the civil department shows that they have from forty-five to sixty-five cases pending in each department.”

“I am very sorry for them,” interjected Judge Smith.

“I believe,” continued Mr. Fredericks, “that the fact that this calendar is in such good condition is caused by the expeditions manner in which criminal cases are investigated and handled by the District Attorney’s office.”

When this was said, every one in court looked up and began to pay attention.

“Then you don’t give the court any credit for it?”

“The judge of this court has been here for the last sixteen or eighteen years,” replied Mr. Fredericks, “and during that time there has been anywhere from twenty-five to seventy-five criminal cases pending all of the time. The policy seems to have been to try all cases filed, no matter how trivial. It is our policy, when we find that we have no case, to move its dismissal and save time and money. We are extremely happy when we can ascertain this fact in time to prevent the return of a jury. If, however, we do not ascertain that fact until the jury is ordered back, which has happened about once a year, then, nevertheless, we will move for the dismissal of that case, and not compel the jury to work to no purpose.

“We understand that, when the jury is ordered back, it is an expense, and we are responsible to the county of Los Angeles for that expense; not to the court, but to the county. The court can have no means of knowing whether a case is ready for trial. We know whether it is ready, and are willing the assume the responsibility before the people of the county of Los Angeles, being responsible to the people and not to the court; and, in that connection, I move the dismissal of the two cases, this morning, so that there will be an abundance of time in advance.”

In 1910, Fredericks hired as a prosecutor Clara Shortridge Foltz, in whose honor the Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles was renamed in 2002. At age 61, she became the first female deputy DA in the state. (San Diego District Attorney James Copeland had attempted to hire her in 1887 as assistant district attorney but it was discovered that the law then permitted the appointment of a woman only as a school trustee or superintendent of schools.)

Then came 1910’s explosive contest between Fredericks and the Democratic challenger, Thomas Lee Woolwine. The two had been selected by voters of their respective parties, rather than at conventions, under the Direct Primary Law, enacted the previous year. This was to be the first and last election at which political parties were compelled to employ this method for nominating candidates for county offices; nonpartisan elections for all local posts would be held in 1914 and in the years ensuing.

The Times’s Nov. 9 report of the results of the 1910 district attorney race says:

“Dist-Atty. Fredericks is re-elected by a majority of several thousand votes over Tommy Woolwine, after one of the nastiest mudslinging campaigns ever known in the county, conducted on behalf of the Democratic candidate.”

The returns—25,073 votes for Fredericks and 23,198 for Woolwine—marked a victory not only for Fredericks, but also the Times…and a defeat for the Express, which had feverishly, if not fanatically, campaigned in its pages for Woolwine. (The Herald also vilified Fredericks, but not with day-after-day hit pieces, like the Express.)

The Express was sore at Fredericks for not having prosecuted former Los Angeles Mayor A.C. Harper whom the Express had forced out of office the previous year. Harper, already the subject of a recall election, agreed to withdraw as a candidate after conferring with Express Publisher E.T. Earl. The deal was that Harper would voluntarily relinquish his office, and the newspaper would desist from publishing certain damaging materials, reputedly including photographs. (Isn’t that called “blackmail”?) Harper said at the time in a public statement: “I have made mistakes, and I have been indiscreet. People may draw their own conclusions, but I have no explanation to make.”

Anyway, Fredericks turned the matter over to the Grand Jury which found no basis for a conviction under the existing evidence, but suggested that the DA might continue to investigate on his own. Fredericks—who, as his statement in Smith’s court indicates, only wanted to pursue sure-thing prosecutions—didn’t pursue the matter.

Perhaps he was entirely justified in light of the state of the evidence. On the other hand, the question bobs to mind whether, had he been DA in 1981, he would have done what the then-district attorney (later state attorney general) John Van de Kamp did, in allowing a deputy to move to dismiss charges against “Hillside Strangler” Angelo Buono for lack of evidence. Then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald George (now California chief justice) denied the motion to dismiss and turned over the prosecution to the Office of Attorney General, which secured a conviction on 10 counts.

Woolwine opened fire on Fredericks on Sept. 30. The report the next day in the Express begins:

“ ‘John D. Fredericks, district attorney, charged and sworn to prosecute crimes and misdemeanors, and to protect the citizens of this county from criminals and thieves and forgers, suppressed and covered up and refused to prosecute felonies that he knew had been committed, and that by means of this offense enriched himself to the extent of about $12,000.’

“That was the charge hurled at the district attorney at Simpson auditorium last evening by Thomas Lee Woolwine, democratic nominee for the office now held by the man he accuses of compounding a felony for personal profit.”

There stand out some logical flaws in Woolwine’s seminal offensive. He refers to “crimes and misdemeanors.” A misdemeanor is now, and was then, not distinct from a crime; it is and was a form of a crime. That’s too basic to have reasonably eluded a candidate for DA. Woolwine referred to “criminals and thieves and forgers.” Are thieves and forgers not in the category of “criminals”?

Anyway, such gaffes by Woolwine are inconsequential if, in fact, the district attorney of Los Angeles County had, provably, compounded a felony for personal gain.

What are the details of the allegations against Fredericks? What are his responses? And what are the counter-charges? Tune in next time for the answers.


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