Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Page 7



Thomas Lee Woolwine—Hero to Some, Scoundrel to Others—Becomes DA




Thirty-Fifth in a Series


THOMAS LEE WOOLWINE on Jan. 4, 1915, was sworn in as the 27th district attorney for Los Angeles County. What manner of man was this who had ascended to the post of the county’s chief prosecutor?

Detractors saw him as hot-tempered and headstrong, as cunning and grandstanding. Admirers found him a fearless crusader, an effective and determined prosecutor.

A multi-faceted man, he was perhaps all that his critics scored him for being, and all that his supporters hailed him for being. Like President Richard Nixon, he was possessed of remarkable skills, but unbridled ambition.

Woolwine was careless in spewing charges, as detailed in earlier columns dealing with the 1910 race in which he sought with fervor to unseat John D. Fredericks as district attorney. The DA, he asserted at the outset of his campaign, had committed a felony by compounding a felony. Woolwine didn’t have facts to back that up, but never retreated from the allegation.

On the other hand, it was clear that if Woolwine had been district attorney for the preceding four years rather than Fredericks, the corrupt mayor and the corrupt police chief of the City of Los Angeles would have been prosecuted for graft, and in all likelihood convicted. The choice in that race was between an ineffectual incumbent and a challenger who was a loose cannon.

Today’s column looks at Woolwine’s wild side.

In the closing days of the 1910 campaign, as I previously mentioned, the Los Angeles Examiner dug into its archives and reprinted two editorials from 1908 lambasting Woolwine, then Los Angeles city prosecutor, for the rash act of raiding the California Club. He was trailed by newspaper reporters and photographers on that occasion as he oversaw the seizing of the alcohol in stock and arrest of club directors. It was all for show. The club had offered to cooperate in setting up a test case to determine whether a new law requiring licensing of saloons applied to social establishments.

The Examiner did not reprint its Jan. 1, 1909 story bearing the headline, “WOOLWINE STRIKES ATTORNEY DOCKWEILER IN COURTROOM.” In fact, so far as I can tell, the incident did not come up at all during the 1910 campaign. Woolwine was certainly not apt to allude, himself, to his having resorted to violence in open court…and I can only speculate that Fredericks desisted from mentioning it because he thought that some voters might find it praiseworthy that the gentleman from Tennessee would fight to protect his honor. The Examiner article was accompanied by this cartoon, reflecting Woolwine’s southern accent in declaring: “Allow me to say, suh, I’m not a liah suh”….



The article starts off:

“During the proceedings in Judge [James] Rives’ department of the Superior Court yesterday morning, several contests of cases being under consideration, Thomas Lee Woolwine, former City Prosecutor, hit Isidore B. Dockweiler, attorney for the Mayor, in the jaw.

“The court bailiff, who, with several attorneys, saw the blow given, separated the combatants. Strangely enough, the judge did not even look up from the documents he was perusing. Dockweiler shut himself up in the judge’s chambers and Woolwine was discovered in the corridor shortly after the clash waiting with clenched fists for some one who did not come.”

Rives, as you may recall, had served as district attorney before becoming a judge. His judicial assignment was that of presiding over the probate department.

At one point in the course of the Woolwine-Dockweiler clash over an estate matter, Woolwine said to Dockweiler: “You are a bluffer”….Dockweiler retorted: “You’re a liar”….Woolwine belted Dockweiler.

The future district attorney is quoted as saying later to a reporter:

“I deplore the affair but Mr. Dockweiler has offered me several affronts in the case. When he called me a liar I had to strike him.”

The “Woolwine Defense” of a privilege to commit a battery based on effrontery somehow never made its way into the law.

Woolwine was not found in contempt on that occasion...though he would be in later years, at least twice.

He had, the previous year, expressly invited the Grand Jury to seek an order by the Superior Court adjudging him in contempt.

After Woolwine had publicly proclaimed in 1908 that vice was being protected by officials in the City of Los Angeles, Fredericks called for a Grand Jury investigation, and Woolwine was to assist him (the city prosecutor then being sort of an adjunct to the District Attorney’s Office). Fredericks soon fired the volatile Woolwine, but then called him as a witness to ascertain what information concerning corruption he had uncovered. Woolwine refused to divulge what he knew. Here’s a portion of the Oct. 16, 1908 transcript:

Q. Do you, of your own knowledge, know of the violation—of the fact that any city official of the City of Los Angeles is violating—is protecting vice, is protecting vice here in the city?

A. I should answer that question in this way: That if I knew these things of my own knowledge, that it wouldn’t be necessary for a grand jury inquisition, and I would swear to the complaints myself.


Q. Have you any information now from others that any public official in Los Angeles is protecting vice?

A. I refuse to answer that, on the ground that it is hearsay. It would be second-hand.

Q. What are the names of the witnesses, Mr. Woolwine?

A. I will not tell you on the ground that it is immaterial.

Fredericks asked the foreman to order Woolwine to answer; he did.

It was at that point that Woolwine declared: “I refuse to answer. Certify me for contempt.”

The transcript shows that the dialogue ensued:

Q. Do you know anyone, Mr. Woolwine, who could assist this grand jury in arriving at the truth of the charges you have made, that vice is protected in the city of Los Angeles?

A. I think I do.

Q. Will you give the names of one or more of those persons to the jury?

A. I refuse to answer that on the ground it is incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial, and has nothing to do with any offense that has been committed in the city of Los Angeles and would be hearsay; a conclusion of my own.

Woolwine at one point told the man whom he would oppose at the polls two years later that “to give you those names would enable you to block this investigation,” charging:

“[Y]ou have no intention of carrying this investigation to a logical conclusion.”

Contrary to newspaper headlines, the Grand Jury that day did not seek a contempt citation. It simply asked Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William P. James to instruct Woolwine to answer the questions. The prosecution’s interest in further testimony from Woolwine subsequently vanished.

Woolwine is said to have brandished a firearm during a 1913 altercation with a neighbor, Fielding J. Stilson, whose bulldog had attacked Woolwine’s fox terrier. An Oct. 1 article in the Times quotes from a complaint which Stilson filed with the District Attorney’s Office and which Fredericks forwarded to the Los Angeles Bar Assn. with the request that it designate an independent prosecutor.

In the complaint, Stilson tells of being awakened on a recent evening by one of his boys and told that a man wanted to see him. He went to the door and found Woolwine there. According to Stilson:

“He struck me on the chin, felling me to the floor. I got up. He jumped on me again and threw me on the stairs.”

Stilson then landed a punch, Woolwine fell, and according to Stilson’s account:

“As he arose he whipped a revolver from his pocket. My brother begged him not to shoot. He did not fire.”

The article quotes Woolwine (who at that point was in private practice) as rendering quite a different version, in an interview with the newspaper:

“I simply went to the door to remonstrate with the owner of the dog. But the conversation had not proceeded far until he, and later his brother, advanced on me. I simply protected myself as any man would have done under the circumstances.

“I did not see any ladies about nor were there any children present. I defended myself as best I could against the attack of my adversaries, each one of whom should have proved a match for my 158 pounds.”

The article relates:

“Woolwine says he is ready and willing to fight an old-fashioned duel with Stilson but he questions the courage of a man who outweighs him by forty pounds who will not have the question open to private settlement.”

The matter was resolved, without a prosecution, a month later when Woolwine wrote a letter to Stilson. Though drenched with sarcasm, it assured Stilson that he would do him no physical harm in the future.

Woolwine was found in contempt, while district attorney, on Dec. 14, 1915.

He was trying a late-located conspirator in the Oct. 1, 1910 dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times Building, which resulted in 21 deaths. A defense attorney, Job Harriman, accused Woolwine of the intentional destruction of evidence.

Harriman contended during interplay with the DA that some leaking dynamite that had been found, connected with his client, if preserved as evidence, could have been shown not to have posed any danger. He remarked: “[T]hat is the reason you destroyed it.”

The DA shot back: “That is false and you know it.”

The judge, Frank R. Willis, declared that such “language” would not be tolerated, noted that Woolwine had been warned before, and found him in contempt, fining him $10. Harriman was not penalized.

(Harriman, as you may recall from an earlier column, was the Socialist candidate for mayor in 1911 and had been a member of the defense team, headed by Clarence Darrow, at the trial of James McNamara, who set the timing mechanism to discharge the dynamite. Harriman was portrayed at Darrow’s subsequent trial for jury-tampering as the bag man who brought money to Darrow’s office for the bribing of a juror in McNamara’s trial.)

 The Times’s report on the incident, published the following day, quotes Woolwine as saying: “I would have been less than a man if I had submitted to such an imputation without resenting it.”

One might suspect personal animosity toward Woolwine on the part of the trial judge, who singled him out for official disapprobation though Harriman’s remark was far more caustic. Perhaps the explanation is that Woolwine had been previously warned, and Harriman hadn’t. In any event, Willis was to be an honorary pallbearer at Woolwine’s 1925 funeral…as was the man Woolwine belted in court in 1909, Dockweiler.

Woolwine’s utterance of the words “[t]hat is false and you know it” was relatively innocuous. The stricture that attorneys are to address the court, not opposing counsel, existed then but was not taken seriously. The 1915 contempt adjudication might well be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders.

And as to the 1908 huffy refusal to answer questions before the Grand Jury, well, Woolwine was only 33 at the time…and was 34 when he punched Dockweiler in the jaw (or in the eye, if you believe the Examiner’s cartoonist over its reporter).

A Times editorial published Oct. 16, 1908, labels Woolwine “a rosy-cheeked, intense and genial young man, suffering from an over-readiness to converse.” The editorial predicts: “He will get over it in due course of time.”

In other words…he would mature.

All of us who have attained “senior citizen” status know that being too young can be cured with the passage of time (though being too old is irreversible).

Could it possibly be imagined that Woolwine—older and with the sense of self-assurance that would naturally flow from the attainment of the office of Los Angeles County district attorney—would again pull so juvenile and impetuous a stunt as to punch opposing counsel in court?

It would seem unthinkable.

Yet, it happened.

The incident occurred on March 16, 1921. Woolwine, born Oct. 31, 1874, was now 46, and was in his third term as district attorney.

His ire was aroused, and shortly after the court went into recess, he delivered a blow to the nose of a spectacled defense lawyer who was still seated at the counsel table, jurors being present.

Woolwine was cited for contempt and faced criminal charges, as well as the remote prospect of a recall election. Details are to come, in the next column.


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