Los Angeles Times Bombing - Trial and Conviction

Trial and Conviction

The national labor movement was outraged by the way the McNamaras had been treated, and labor leaders were quick to defend the brothers' innocence. From their point of view, Burns had clearly engaged in kidnapping, misrepresentation of his status as a law enforcement officer, unlawful imprisonment, and possibly torture in his handling of McManigal and J.B. McNamara. The local circuit judge had unlawfully denied J.J. McNamara access to legal representation and had no authority to approve his extradition. Both McNamaras had been arrested on the basis of a confession wrung from a third man who himself had been kidnapped and perhaps coerced into confessing. The case seemed too much like the kidnapping and trial of Industrial Workers of the World leader Bill Haywood and others in 1906.

Labor leaders were also convinced of the McNamara's innocence by other factors as well. The open shop movement and virulent hostility shown by Otis convinced many that the whole event was a frame-up (with some, including Eugene V. Debs, suggesting that Otis himself might have planted the bomb). Burns repeatedly implied that Gompers and other labor leaders were involved in the national bombing campaign, and AFL officials feared a national campaign of arrests designed to destroy the nascent labor movement might be in the works. Meanwhile, George Alexander, mayor of Los Angeles, was locked in a very close re-election battle against Job Harriman, a Socialist Party of America candidate. The bombing, some felt, might simply be a plot to keep Harriman out of City Hall.

Iron Workers president Frank Ryan asked Clarence Darrow to defend the McNamaras. But Darrow was in ill health. Ryan turned to Harriman, who agreed to be the brothers' defense attorney. Gompers, however, visited Darrow in Chicago and convinced him that the case required his expertise. Reluctantly, Darrow consented to be lead defense attorney. Harriman stayed on as his assistant. Darrow also recruited former Los Angeles county assistant district attorney Lecompte Davis, pro-union Indiana judge Cyrus F. McNutt, and president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Joseph Scott as co-counsel for the defense.

The McNamaras were arraigned on May 5, 1911. They pled not guilty. McManigal, who had turned state's evidence, was not charged at that time.

Darrow argued that he would need $350,000 ($7.4 million in 2007 dollars) for the defense. The AFL, who had already paid Darrow a $50,000 retainer, immediately began to raise the additional funds. The AFL Executive Council established a permanent "Ways and Means Committee" to seek money. The federation appealed to local, state, regional and national unions to donate 25 cents per capita to the defense fund, and set up defense committees in larger cities throughout the nation to take donations. Pins, buttons and other paraphernalia were sold to raise money, and a film — A Martyr to His Cause — was produced. It premiered in Cincinnati, Ohio and an estimated 50,000 people paid to see it. Labor Day throughout the nation was declared to be "McNamara Day", and mass marches were held in 13 major cities in support of the defendants.

Jury selection began on October 25. As voir dire continued, Darrow became increasingly concerned about the outcome of the trial. He felt J.B. could not be relied on as a witness and would break down under cross-examination. On October 15, he learned that the prosecution had acquired masses of evidence to support 21 separate charges. On October 18, he learned that U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham had obtained enough evidence on his own to secure, with President William Howard Taft's approval, a federal subpoena against the McNamaras. The first panel of jurors was exhausted on October 25, forcing the court to order an additional panel of jurors to appear. The jury was finally seated on November 7.

As jury selection continued, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens arrived in Los Angeles. Steffens, convinced the McNamaras were guilty, visited them in jail. Steffens proposed to defend their actions in print as "justifiable dynamiting" in the face of employer violence and state-sponsored repression of labor unions. J.B. was an eager proponent of Steffens' plans, but J.J. refused to cooperate unless Darrow agreed. Darrow was stunned by Steffens' report that the brothers had admitted their guilt to him, but with his health worsening and his pessimism about the defense growing, Darrow agreed to permit the McNamaras to cooperate with Steffens.

The weekend of November 19-20, Darrow and Steffens met with newspaper publisher E. W. Scripps. During their discussions of the trial, Darrow raised the possibility of pressuring the prosecution into accepting a plea bargain. In exchange for light prison terms for the McNamaras, the AFL would end its debilitating strike and organizing efforts against Los Angeles employers. Steffens met with Otis and Harry Chandler, Otis' son-in-law and assistant general manager at the Los Angeles Times. Both men agreed to the plan. The success of the AFL's public opinion campaign had apparently worried both newspapermen, and the Iron Workers' success in maintaining (even widening) the strike had weakened the resolve of many in the Los Angeles business community. Chandler offered to open negotiations with the district attorney, John D. Fredericks. Fredericks balked. Although a group of Los Angeles businessmen had endorsed the secret talks, Fredericks refused to sanction any plan which let the McNamaras go free. The National Erectors' Association had learned of the talks (both the defense and prosecution had their paid spies in the other's camp), and was pressing Fredericks to reject any plea bargain. As a compromise, Fredericks demanded that J.B. receive life in prison and J.J. receive a much shorter term.

The agreement was laid before the McNamara brothers. J.B. initially refused to agree to any plea bargain that did not set his brother free. But when Darrow told him that a settlement was possible only if both brothers pled guilty, J.B. gave his consent. Darrow sent for a representative of the AFL. The shocked labor leader refused to accept the agreement until Darrow convinced him that the defense had almost no chance.

Darrow had hoped that a plea bargain (rather than an admission of guilt in open court) would be all that was needed. But Los Angeles employers were worried that defense attorney Harriman would trounce Mayor Alexander on election day (December 5). Nothing short of an actual admission of guilt in open court would discredit Harriman and prevent his victory, and the employers were pressing hard for one.

The defense's position weakened further when, on November 28, Darrow was accused of attempted bribery of a juror. The defense team's chief investigator had been arrested for bribing a juror, and Darrow had been seen in public passing the investigator money. With Darrow himself on the verge of being discredited, the defense's hope for a simple plea agreement ended.

Read more about this topic:  Los Angeles Times Bombing

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