Tuesday, October 30, 2007
District Attorney Keyes Is Target of Brickbats Hurled by Governor, Others
By ROGER M. GRACE
Fiftieth in a Series
ASA KEYES was a marked contrast to his predecessor as district attorney, Thomas Lee Woolwine. Woolwinewas brilliant, able, and energetic, but attracted legions of “enemies”—as hedenominated critics—based on his pugnacious disposition and bull-headedness.
Keyes was not brilliant, was not able, and was an oaf who took too many vacations and too many swigs of liquor during working hours. He had detractors, but gained them not through conviction-based pursuit of causes, but based on his ineptitude and huffiness…as well as highly questionable prosecutorial calls.
Woolwine, the county’s 27th DA, was multifaceted and incorruptible. The 28th DA was an uncomplicated crook, who wound up in San Quentin.
Who was the best of the DAs in our county’s history? That’s hard to say. The earliest of them were private practitioners who personally attended to criminal cases when the need arose. The most distinguished of them was Stephen M. White, who practiced law on the side while DA, and whose distinction related largely to later activities as lieutenant governor and then a U.S. senator. Woolwine had qualities of greatness, but also qualities denoting baseness. In relatively recent years, Evelle Younger and John Van de Kamp each went on to become state attorney general, each distinguishing himself in that role, and each drawing appreciable support as a candidate for governor, though neither attained the post. The latter will always carry the baggage of having been willing, as district attorney, to throw up his arms and drop the prosecution of the “Hillside Strangler”…whose conviction was secured when the Office of Attorney General was called in.
As to the worst…well, that’s not in doubt. It was Keyes.
Here are some of the events preceding his downfall:
•Aug. 8, 1925: Con man Everett (“Big Hutch”) Hutchings is quietly released from San Quentin on parole. The public does not gain knowledge of the release for six weeks. As you might recall from a previous column, Keyes’ letter to the state Board of Prison Directors seeking the liberation of “Big Hutch,” perpetrator of swindles that deprived numerous victims of their life savings, became a sizzling campaign issue against the DA in the 1924 election. The particular offense for which Hutchings was convicted was cheating a man out of $51,000, resulting in the victim’s despondency which arguably precipitated his death.
•Sept. 24, 1925: Keyes says he “knew absolutely nothing” about the release “and had I known the prison board contemplated paroling him I certainly would have opposed it.” (Taking some of the credit for the parole was attorney Clara Shortridge Foltz, after whom the Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles was recently renamed.)
•Oct. 5, 1925: Gov. Friend Richardson releases a public statement noting that while a governor does not have the power to effect a parole, he can rescind one. “Several newspapers in Los Angeles county where Hutchings was convicted have condemned the action of the board,” the statement says, adding:“County officials have been quoted in the newspapers as protesting against suchaction.” He pledges to review the matter if requested to do so by Keyes, the sheriff, or a Superior Court judge. Keyes’ reaction is: “I doubt whether Gov. Richardson has the power to go over the heads of the parole board. Until such time as I am fully informed as to the Governor’s powers in the matter, I have absolutely no statement to make. At such time as I am fully conversant with the situation, however, a statement will be forthcoming.”
•Oct. 6, 1925: Keyes says in a public statement: “The Governor knows or should know that he is helpless to undo the work of the Parole Board in releasing ‘Big Hutch.’” In a turnabout later that day, he writes to Richardson asking him to review the case, assuring him: “The law of this State undoubtedly gives you the power to cancel and revoke the parole of any prisoner.” In the press statement, he scores the Parole Board for releasing Hutchings and letting him go to New York; he explains that at the time he sought the convict’s release, it was for the purpose of utilizing his services in helping to break up a confidence ring in Los Angeles while now, nothing was to be gained.
•Nov. 27, 1925: Richardson revokes the parole of “Big Hutch” and asks New York authorities to arrest him and send him back to California. The governor discloses that while Keyes asked him to review the matter, he never asked for parole revocation and declined the opportunity to present arguments in favor of such an action.
•Dec. 22, 1925: The governor publicly denounces Keyes for contributing to the decision of the parole board by having failed to fulfill a statutory duty to supply it with information as to the convict’s past crimes, thus creating the false impression that Hutchings was a first-time offender. Keyes “absolutely” denies that and other allegations.
•Jan. 30, 1926: Richardson reveals that while he was pondering whether to rescind Hutchings’ parole, he was privately implored by Keyes not to do so...notwithstanding that Keyes was publicly criticizing the Board of Prison Directors for granting Hutchings freedom. He recites that Keyes told him, in a meeting, “he thought it would be useless” to lift the parole and that Hutchings “should not be brought back to California, and that no good purpose would be served by such action on my part.” The governor adds: “His attitude and his statement to me were such that I was fully convinced of his friendship for Hutchings.” After revoking the parole, Richardson notes, Keyes trumpeted that the action was predicated on information he had provided when, to the contrary, Keyes had actively attempted to conceal the extent of Hutchings’ criminal record. The chief executive disputes Keyes’ representation to reporters that, when the release became publicly known, it was a surprise to him. In light of these facts, the governor declares, “it is needless for me to say that I have lost confidence in Dist.-Atty. Keyes.” He adds this zinger: “[I]f vice conditions, past and present in Los Angeles, are to be investigated, the truth will never be known if the investigation is to be conducted by the District Attorney’s office, with Asa Keyes as the head.”
•Feb. 16, 1926: The grand jury, after looking into allegations by Richardson, announces: “We have listened to no testimony which would justify us in saying that the District Attorney is protecting vice.” It says it hadn’t examined for itself the competency of the DA, but had heard that he was “one of the best criminal attorneys in the Southland.” The report expresses an understanding that Keyes, in seeking Hutchings’ release in 1924, might have felt that the prisoner “could and would be useful to him.” It notes: “In arriving at further conclusions we are somewhat confused by the fact that some very pertinent testimony given to us under oath by the Governor on one hand and the District Attorney on the other, is in direct and unequivocal contradiction one with the other.”
•Feb. 20, 1926: A judge of the New York Supreme Court (a trial court) grants a writ of habeas corpus to Hutchings. California was “powerless to enforce his extradition...by reason of its failure to show that he is a fugitive from justice” inasmuch as he was in New York “at the express direction of the state of California.”
•Dec. 3, 1926: The Appellate Department of the New York Supreme Court reverses the order for a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that the parole—or “ticket of leave”—was procured through fraud. Among the findings by Richardson which the opinion cites is that Keyes concealed Hutchings’ record from the parole board.
•Dec. 20, 1926: Richardson grants a pardon to a man convicted in Los Angeles of a robbery in 1924. He declares the man was clearly innocent, and prosecuted through Keyes’ carelessness...this being the fourth man he freed for the same reason, error having been confessed by the DA’s office in the three previous instances. The governor comments: “There are not only these cases of innocent men convicted, but I have received complaints of failure to prosecute criminals.”
•Jan. 10, 1927: Keyes asks a Superior Court judge to dismiss charges against evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson…notwithstanding an order binding her over for trial and a wealth of evidence that she committed perjury and manufactured evidence. Suspicions are to develop that Keyes was bought off.
•Jan. 12, 1927: The Los Angeles Times points in an editorial to the on-again, off-again prosecutorial efforts by Keyes in the McPherson case through the months. “Such exhibitions of weakness and vacillation as that made by the chief law enforcement officer of Los Angeles county can only serve to bring into contempt the law and the courts,” the editorial observes.
•March 29, 1927: New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, affirms the decision requiring extradition of “Big Hutch,” without opinion.
•Nov. 22, 1927: Deputy District Attorney Joe Ryan (who headed the investigation in the McPherson case) turns in a letter of resignation in which he charges that he had been “asked to handle some cases irregularly.” He claims that “75 per cent of the cases in the office are disposed of by accepting lesser pleas when the crime warrants a more severe punishment.” He attributes the condition of the office to Keyes’ chief deputy, Harold Davis, whom he calls “the real District Attorney.”
•Jan. 14, 1928: Attorney W.J. Clark, who recently resigned as a deputy district attorney after eight years of service, provides a list of cases to the grand jury which he charges were handled irregularly.
•Jan. 31, 1928: Clark entreats the County Efficiency Bureau to launch a probe into operations of Keyes’ office. There were “chaotic conditions” in the office, he asserts, with sloppily prepared pleadings being the norm and irregularities being rampant....That same day, a jury acquits two defendants in a murder case after 19 minutes of deliberating and, through its foreman, decries the “injustice” done by the bringing of the prosecution. The foreman alludes to the prospect that “we will have to change District Attorneys” to forestall future wrongful prosecutions.
•March 16, 1928: From the bench, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Burnell castigates the DA’s office for filing cases as felonies “that should be disposed of in police court.”
•May 24, 1928: Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William C. Doran issues a statement holding Keyes in large part responsible for the acquittal the day before of seven defendants in the case of a major swindle involving stock in the the Julian Petroleum Corporation. In a written statement, the judge declares, in part: “The jury was deprived of a careful, effective analysis of the people’s case, which would have been supplied by an adequate closing argument by the District Attorney, and in the absence of which it would be exceedingly difficult in any case for a jury to do a cause justice. [¶] During the course of the trial the District Attorney was admonished in open court because of his apparent unwillingness to assist his deputies in the conduct of the people’s case. His infrequent attendance at the trial seriously handicapped him in making a proper closing argument. [¶] I feel that due diligence would have brought about a different verdict, at least in the cases of some of the defendants who were primarily responsible for one of the most deplorable, unfortunate and reprehensible episodes in the history of this county.”
•May 26, 1928: The Times quotes the foreperson of the jury in the Julian Petroleum case as saying: “I am sincerely glad that Judge Doran made the statement. It was impossible for the jury to reach a conviction the way the District Attorney had the indictments drawn and from the manner in which he argued before the jury. As I recall his remarks, he talked about an hour and most of that time he spent in convincing the jury that three of the defendants were not guilty.”
•Oct. 31, 1928: The Los Angeles County Grand Jury files an accusation containing eight “specifications” of “wilful and corrupt misconduct in office” on Keyes’ part. It is alleged that Keyes entered into an agreement with two defendants in the stock fraud case to attempt to secure their acquittal in return for bribes. One defendant, the accusation says, paid $10,000; the other gave Keyes a gold or platinum wristwatch worth about $630 during the pendency of the case, along with cash in an amount that hadn’t yet been ascertained. In a case unrelated to the Julian Petroleum stock swindle, Keyes dismissed grand theft charges against the former head of a finance company—an action which the grand jury’s accusation says was in return for a bribe. The DA is also accused of transporting 12 bottles of whisky in his car on one occasion (in violation of state and federal Prohibition laws) and “several” bottles of liquor another time.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company