The Triumph and Tragedy of Earl Rogers

He was a new kind of criminal defense lawyer: daring, flamboyant, creative and ready to use forensic evidence, visual aids and reenactments like never before. He moved criminal trials into the modern age. His tactics (some said “tricks”) were shocking yet effective. He appeared for the defense in almost 100 murder cases. He lost only three, and only one client was executed. He made the practice of criminal law exciting and attractive. Young lawyers rushed to handle criminal cases. He was who Clarence Darrow hired when he needed a lawyer. He was so celebrated that fictional characters, such as Perry Mason, were based on him. One charged with a serious crime in America was apt to say the famous phrase “Get me Earl Rogers!”[1]

Born at Perry, N.Y., in 1870, the only son of a Methodist minister, Earl was young when he moved with his family to California. He had to drop out of Syracuse University and return to California with his new bride in 1890 when his father went bankrupt. He got a job as an investigative reporter but quit to study law under the tutelage of former U.S. Senator Stephen White, an undefeated trial lawyer known as “the Little Giant.”[2]

In 1897 Rogers was admitted to the bar and opened an office in Los Angeles. From the start, he made an impression. He was charming and fashionable, usually wearing a gardenia on his lapel. More importantly, he had an exceptional mind capable of marshalling a massive amount of facts. No detail went unnoticed. He also dove into the study of the new science of ballistics and forensics, eventually becoming a professor of medical jurisprudence.

Rogers’ first big trial was defending William Alford, a plumber accused of murdering Jay Hunter, a wealthy socialite. The two had gotten into an argument in front of Hunter’s office about an unpaid plumbing bill. Hunter first struck Alford with his walking stick and Rogers argued self-defense. Rogers created a sensation when he had the dead man’s intestines brought to court in a jar to show the jury that the path of the bullet was according to Alford’s story (He would do the same with a skull in a later trial). Rogers’ mentor, Senator White, was prosecuting. Rogers knew that White, an alcoholic, was always late to court following lunch. Hence he put Alford on the stand as soon as the trial was reconvened so that White could not handle the cross-examination.[3] The jury found Alford not guilty. It was the first time White had been bested in court.[4]

In another case, Rogers defended a client charged with petty theft. He rented expensive jewelry for his client to wear at trial. The jury concluded it was unlikely that such a wealthy person would engage in a petty crime and acquitted. Rogers got another client off after he had his assistant dress just like the accused. While the key witness was not looking, he had the assistant switch places with the client at the counsel table. Rogers then asked the witness to point out the perpetrator numerous times; each time the witness pointed to the assistant. The jury agreed with Rogers that the witness’s identification was unreliable and retuned a not guilty verdict.[5]

He often represented police officers. In one case, a policeman was accused of beating a young man he had arrested. Rogers put dozens of officers on the stand and asked each if it was true that the victim had a twin brother who was a dangerous criminal. Each time the prosecutor objected, the judge sustained the objection, and the question went unanswered. Nevertheless, the jury came to believe that the officer acted reasonably since the man he arrested could have been the dangerous twin. There was no twin.[6]

Surprise dramatics were a trademark of Rogers’ practice. An example was the trial of Alfred Boyd. The teenage Boyd was charged with murdering a professional gambler, William Yeager, known as “the Louisville Sport,” during a poker game in a cabin on Catalina Island. The only other person in the room at the time of the shooting was another teenager named Harry Johnson, the prosecution’s star witness. Johnson had been seen running from the cabin yelling that Boyd had killed the Sport.[7]

During cross-examination, Rogers had Johnson describe the killing in detail and inquired how Johnson felt when Boyd pointed the gun at him. Johnson said he was not frightened. During summation, Rogers drew a Colt .45 from his briefcase and brandished it about the courtroom as the prosecutor, spectators and jurors ducked for cover, demonstrating that Johnson was lying about not being afraid and thus, perhaps, lying about the rest of his story. Boyd was acquitted.[8]

Today, some of his tactics would be frowned upon under modern codes of professional conduct. Yet Rogers was breaking new ground and ethical rules were less developed.

Rogers earned unprecedented fees. He was paid $100,000 for successfully representing businessmen charged with bribing the entire San Francisco city council to obtain a trolley franchise, achieving a hung jury without presenting a single witness. He defended wealthy developer Griffith J. Griffith, for whom L.A.’s Griffith Park is named, after Griffith shot his wife in the eye in an apparent murder attempt, saying that he believed his wife and the Pope were conspiring against him. Rogers put scores of bartenders on the stand to retell bizarre stories Griffith had told them. Griffith was sentenced to only two years in prison because the jury believed Rogers’ contention that Griffith was suffering from “alcoholic paranoia.”[9]

Rogers won a not guilty verdict for Jess Willard, the future heavyweight champion of the world, when he was indicted for second degree murder for killing an opponent in the ring. He also got the L.A. police chief acquitted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. However, his dedication to his clients’ causes did not mean he always believed in their innocence. For instance, after a client was found not guilty of murdering his wife, the client turned to Rogers and said, “The truth will prevail, Earl.” Rogers angrily shouted back: “Get away from me, you slimy pimp! You know you’re guilty as hell.”[10]

Rogers became known as “the trial lawyer’s trial lawyer”[11] when he defended the great Clarence Darrow. Darrow was indicted for attempting to bribe a juror in the trial of union leaders charged with blowing up the Los Angeles Times building and killing 21 people. Although Rogers and Darrow frequently quarreled on trial strategy, Darrow was acquitted after a three-month trial. Rogers’ main argument was that Darrow was too shrewd to take part in bribery. And, if he were guilty, he would have been too clever to be seen at the scene of the alleged crime as he was.[12]

Too Many Triumphs Lead to Tragedy

Sadly, like his mentor Stephen White, the more successful, famous and wealthy Rogers became, the more he drank. He deluded himself that, like a lawyer he read about in a novel, the more he drank the more brilliant he became. He eventually left his family and was notorious for his lavish lifestyle and partying at nightclubs all night. He divorced and remarried, but his second wife died of the flu. Earl Rogers was found dead in a “fleabag hotel” a block from the L. A. courthouse, the site of so many of his triumphs. He “drank himself to death.”[13]

More Help Available Today

Earl Rogers did not have the benefit of the avenues of help attorneys have today. The work of a lawyer can lead to depression, stress, career problems, relationship issues, financial problems or alcohol and substance abuse. The Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) offers free, confidential and competent help to lawyers who are experiencing issues that may affect their ability to practice law. And TLAP accepts anonymous referrals from individuals who have concerns about a colleague, law student or judge. TLAP can be reached at (615) 741-3238 or toll free at (877) 424-8527.

Notes

1. See Jack Smith, “Early L. A. Law,” L. A. Times, Dec. 8, 1989.
2. Id.
3. See Darien A. McWhirter, The Legal 100 130 (1998).
4. Smith, supra.
5. See McWhirter at 130-31.
6. See id.
7. See id.
8. See id.
9. Id.
10. Smith, supra.
11. McWhirter at 129.
12. See McWhirter at 131-32.
13. Id. at 132.


Russell Fowler RUSSELL FOWLER is associate director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and since 1999 has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has more than 50 publications on law and legal history, including several in this Journal.

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