Monday, February 12, 2007
1910: Challenger Accuses District Attorney of Compounding Felony
By ROGER M. GRACE
Twenty-Sixth in a Series
JOHN D. FREDERICKS and THOMAS LEE WOOLWINE were adversaries in the most acrimonious contest for the office of district attorney in the history of Los Angeles County, occurring in 1910. Fredericks, the Republican incumbent, was accused by his rival on the Democratic and Good Government tickets, Woolwine, of having compounded a felony through his non-prosecution of the alleged forgery of two wills.
Fredericks represented two daughters of the decedent in contesting those wills. A settlement was reached, inuring to the financial benefit of Fredericks who had taken the case on a 50 percent contingency-fee basis.
Penal Code §153 provided then, as it does now, that “[e]very person who, having knowledge of the actual commission of a crime, takes money or property of another...or promise thereof, upon any agreement or understanding to compound or conceal such crime, or to abstain from any prosecution thereof....is punishable....”
There were other campaign charges leveled against Fredericks, including coziness with the administration of the erstwhile mayor whose corruption was targeted by Woolwine while city prosecutor. Fredericks was bombarded nearly daily by denigrating news accounts and editorials in the Los Angeles Express—and on one occasion, the publisher of that newspaper tried to seize the platform at a Fredericks rally, finally to be subdued by a former appellate jurist who threatened him with bodily harm. A heckler at another of the DA’s rallies was pronounced by the county’s prosecutor to be under arrest. I’ll get to all that; for now, the focus is on the major issue in the race: the alleged compounding of a felony.
The big news on Oct. 1 was the bombing, at about 1 a.m. that day, of the Los Angeles Times Building at First and Broadway, leaving a then-unknown number of staff members dead (later determined to have been 21). Also drawing major news attention that day was Woolwine’s speech the night before in which his allegations against Fredericks were unleashed.
A story on Page 1 of the Los Angeles Examiner says:
“In one of the most sensational arraignments ever made of a public official in Los Angeles county, Thomas Lee Woolwine, Good Government candidate for district attorney, last night in Simpson Auditorium branded John D. Fredericks, the incumbent, as unfit for the office and untrue to the trust reposed in him by the people. To a large audience that applauded him repeatedly, Mr. Woolwine stated that Fredericks had been guilty of official misconduct, and presented affidavits and copies of documents in support of his statements.”
As to Frederick’s alleged compounding of a felony, Woolwine recounted that one Michael H. King had died in 1906, leaving an estate worth about $125,000; a will was filed, portions of which were “palpable forgeries”; “a few days” later, a second will was filed that was entirely a fake. The speaker told of a meeting Fredericks had in his office at the courthouse with John Gales, a longtime acquaintance who was the son-in-law of the decedent; Gales’ wife, Elizabeth, a daughter of the decedent; and another daughter and her husband. According to an affidavit from Gales, which Woolwine brandished, Fredericks at that meeting said of the second will: “It looks very much like a forgery.”
Gales’ affidavit recited his expression of desire that there be a prosecution, but quoted Fredericks as responding: “It’s the mon[ey] we want.” There was no prosecution but Fredericks did pursue a civil action for his clients, garnering attorney fees amounting to somewhere between $11,000 to $12,000, Woolwine said.
An Oct. 1 editorial in the Express observes, in connection with the will dispute, that Fredericks “stands charged with the most unpardonable offense known to the code of the bar—deceit and conspiracy in the relation of attorney, for which the almost invariable penalty is the disgrace of disbarment from the practice of the profession.”
The Express did publish a public response by Fredericks in its Oct. 4 edition. In it, Fredericks insists that when the case involving King’s estate was brought to him “by an old client and friend” (Gales), it seemed to be strictly a civil matter. DAs were, then, permitted to take on private civil cases. What was in issue at that juncture was the first will (the second one not yet having surfaced). “This [first] will was not a forgery, and was never claimed by anyone to be a subject for criminal action,” Fredericks’ statement declares.
It recites that he associated the firm of Gage and Foley—Henry Gage of that outfit being the former governor—with the objective of breaking a “poorly drawn will.” The narrative continues:
Some months later, I should say three or four, after our contract of employment with our clients had been made and our contest entered upon, a second will was filed, which we, after a thorough investigation, concluded to contest on the ground that it was a forgery.
This unexpected incident coming into the case changed the aspect and made it necessary, in addition to representing my client in his civil suit, that I should look into the case as district attorney from the standpoint of a possible crime. This was thoroughly done. If I could have found sufficient evidence of a crime to file a criminal case, is it not apparent that it would have been to my advantage and that of my clients to do so? Suppose, however, without sufficient evidence, I had filed a criminal charge, and the result would have been that I would have been justly accused of using the power of the district attorney’s office to assist in winning a civil suit.
This is a question which is submitted to this office almost daily, and was decided in this case exactly as it is decided in all others. When a civil suit is in progress and the probabilities of a crime develop, the civil suit must proceed without the assistance of a criminal complaint until sufficient evidence can be brought out to justify the filing of a criminal charge.
The statement contains two contradictory explanations as to why he didn’t bring a prosecution after the civil case was settled: 1.) that it was “absolutely impossible to make a criminal case” in light of the evidentiary burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and 2.) that he “always stood ready to issue a criminal complaint” but his clients, following the settlement, put the kibosh on that. Would he have instituted a criminal action, knowing it was “impossible” to succeed, had his clients approved of his doing so?
The salient question, of course, was whether Fredericks, in fact, agreed not to prosecute as a secret condition of the settlements. The mere prospect that such occurred points to the ethical impropriety of the continued representation of the civil clients. But it was more than an ethical breach that Woolwine alleged. Could he demonstrate criminality?
The ball bounced back to Woolwine. The Express’ Oct. 6 edition quotes the 35-year-old challenger as disputing Fredericks’ assertion that the legitimacy of the first will had not been in issue. Woolwine referred to a paper filed by Fredericks, 41, in the probate case in which he declared, in connection with that first will:
“Said will contains many material alterations, additions and erasures, made without the knowledge or consent of said testator, and each and all of said alterations, additions and erasures were made and forged by [daughter] Lucy King, and by some other person or persons unknown.”
Lucy King was one of the beneficiaries under the first will, while Fredericks’ clients were disinherited by it; the second will (found in a pocket of a coat given to a church following King’s death) left everything to the widow.
With respect to the second will, Woolwine drew attention to a letter from Fredericks to Gales in which the client was assured that the instrument had been declared “an unqualified forgery” by a handwriting expert.
Fredericks was at the podium at a rally on Saturday, Oct. 15.
“ ‘Attacks Not Sincere, Cries District Attorney,’ ” the headline reads in the next morning’s issue of the Examiner, with the first paragraph starting off:
“At the Simpson Auditorium last night District Attorney Fredericks reviewed, item by item, the charges made against him by Thomas Lee Woolwine. In his opening remarks he said that the people’s interest in the outcome of the election was far more vital than his own because no officer has the power possessed by the district attorney to wreck and retard progress by unwise, or ill-considered action….”
On Monday, the Express (which had no Sunday edition) reported Saturday’s speech. The headline on its story reads, “FREDERICKS JUGGLES WORDS; FAILS TO SECURE AQOUITTAL” (sic), and the lead says:
“District Attorney John D. Fredericks has failed to secure acquittal before a jury of the people. Upon the stand of Simpson auditorium Saturday evening, the man accused by Thomas Lee Woolwine replied as best he could to the various charges hurled against him.”
The newspaper did publish a transcript of a portion of the talk.
The Times’ coverage on Sunday centered on the disturbance caused at the meeting by the publisher of the Express, and on Monday, the newspaper carried the full text of Fredericks’ remarks.
In his address, Fredericks continued to maintain that the first King will was genuine, but vulnerable to a legal attack, while the second will “was a forgery.” Fredericks declared that evidence sufficient to support a conviction in connection with the second will “was never obtainable,” adding:
“[I]t is my personal opinion to this day that Lucy King did not forge that will. She was not even a beneficiary under the forged will and therefore had no motive for it, and I know that her mother could not have forged it, because she had not the education.”
As to that second will, Fredericks said, “we could have proven it was a forgery but we never could have proven who the forger was.”
Retreating from his initial stance that the genuineness of the first will had never been questioned in the probate proceeding, Fredericks conceded that “a subsequent pleading was filed by Governor Gage and for the sake of clarity he alleged that the first will was also a forgery.” (It appears, however, that it was Fredericks, not Gage, who signed the pleading.)
Fredericks acknowledged that half of the proceeds of his clients’ settlement was paid in attorney fees—but pointed out that the $11,000-$12,000 was divided between him, Gage, and Foley, while Woolwine “would have you believe that I got all that and Gage and Foley were working for nothing.”
He insisted the case was settled on the basis of the forged will being disregarded and in a recognition by opposing counsel, Joseph Scott, of the infirmities of the first will.
The race for district attorney drew more press attention than any other local contest that year.
“Mr. Fredericks has not satisfactorily explained why the crime of the will forgery became wholly a civil case when he took it up as a private attorney and profited richly thereby,” an Oct. 14 editorial in the Herald maintains.
The Times’ Oct. 24 editorial observes:
“Woolwine says that he has known for five years of the alleged malversions of Capt. Fredericks. If the captain was guilty of compounding a felony as Woolwine asserts, then Woolwine has been guilty as an accessory after the fact of the same crime….”
The Express’ Oct. 27 front page editorial, headed “FREDERICKS, THE FAKER, DON’T DARE TELL TRUTH,” says:
“John D. Fredericks filed a written charge in court accusing [decedent] Michael King’s daughter, Lucy King, of having forged the will. Mrs. King, fearing prosecution of her daughter for forgery, consented that the will be cancelled and the property divided in another way….
“Why did John D. Fredericks accuse Lucy King of forgery? If it was true, why did he not punish Lucy King, which was his sworn duty as district attorney? If Lucy King did not forge the will, was it not a crime for the district attorney to accuse her of forgery?”
That newspaper’s editorial of Nov. 5 says, rather boldly: “The Express has reason to believe that Frederick’s charge of forgery against Lucy King was true. Fredericks dare not tell the people why he did not prosecute Lucy King for forgery.”
The Examiner dismissed Woolwine’s allegations. Its Nov. 6 editorial notes that “a broadside of letters from the most representative lawyers and judges declaring that Fredericks not only acted properly in that case, but would have acted improperly if he had done otherwise than he did, has been produced.”
In his Sept. 30 speech, kicking off his campaign, Woolwine charged that Fredericks had “suppressed a felony that it was his duty to prosecute, knowing it to be a felony, and by means of such suppression was rewarded in the sum of eleven or twelve thousand dollars.”
Woolwine did bring to light faulty judgment on Fredericks’ part in continuing to represent clients after asserting that the felony of forgery had been committed.
But while a suspicion arises that Fredericks’ status as district attorney played a role in the civil dispute being settled, it remains that Woolwine made no showing that there was, in the words of the Penal Code provision, any actual “agreement or understanding…to abstain from any prosecution” in exchange for something of value. (Any such conduct would also have amounted to accepting a bribe.)
A felony obviously can’t be compounded where there’s no felony. Woolwine failed to come anywhere near to establishing that the first will was even in part a forgery. And he could not demonstrate that Fredericks had a provable case of forgery with respect to the second will against Lucy King or anyone else.
In the next column, I’ll take a further look at the rancorous race of 1910.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company