Justice Times Two, Conclusion

Three alienists, Drs. Benjamin Blank, Victor Parkin and Paul Bowers, were called on to determine Gray McNeer’s sanity. The doctors testified at a sanity hearing on October 29, 1934.  They said that they had examined Gray and found him to be sane. The jury concurred. Gray’s trial for Betty’s murder would resume despite his loud and incoherent courtroom outbursts.

The day following Gray’s sanity hearing, S.S. Hahn announced that his client would take the stand in his own defense.  Putting Gray on the stand was a risky move. If he was incapable of controlling himself at the defense table, how would he fare on the witness stand? On more than one occasion the trial had to be adjourned because Gray became hysterical.  How would Gray, still swathed in bandages and wheelchair bound, comport himself under cross examination?

mcneer takes standGray was scheduled to take the stand on November 2nd but he was too ill to appear in court.  The trial was delayed for a few days until it was decided that if Gray couldn’t come to court, the court would come to him.  The trial resumed at Gray’s bedside in the County Jail Hospital.

Gray testified that on the night of the Betty’s death he met her at the apartment of a mutual friend, Lucille Herner, and then they drove to an isolated spot in Glendale where they argued. It was in the midst of their argument, Gray said, that Betty pulled out a gun. He said he felt a heavy blow to his head and then didn’t remember a thing until he regain consciousness in the Glendale Police Station. It was there that he was informed that his Betty’s body had been found in the car next to him.mcneer guilty

The remainder of the trial was conducted in the hospital with Dr. Benjamin Blank in constant attendance to monitor Gray’s condition.  The case went to the jury late on November 7th.  At 10 p.m., after hours of deliberation, the jury was sequestered for the night.

On the evening of November 8th the jury returned with their verdict.  They found Gray guilty of second degree murder.  Gray began to babble incoherently, but settled down after a reprimand from the judge. Gray’s mother, Lola, said she had no plan to appeal the verdict.  S.S. Hahn said, “Mrs. McNeer is convinced that her son’s condition is such that the probably will not live to serve his sentence.”  The doctors disagreed.  They believed Gray would recover from the bullet wound.

gray folsomGray was taken to Folsom Prison to begin serving his sentence of from 5 years to life. Gray’s mother said there was no plan to file an appeal.  But plans change.

gray new trial

The bullet in his head was removed by San Quentin physicians, so Gray was in much better shape for his second trial than he had been for the first go ‘round.

In Judge Vicker’s court, Gray’s second trial began with testimony from police chemist Ray Pinker. Pinker testified that powder burns on Betty’s arms indicated that she was directly in front of the gun at the time the fatal shot was fired into her head. The powder burns were not consistent with a suicide.

Gray took the stand on November 21st.  He reiterated the story he had told at his first trial.  Gray said that he and Betty had taken an automobile ride and attempted reconciliation.  When she refused to return to him Gray said he suggested divorce. According to Gray, Betty became angry, pulled out a gun and shot him in the head.  He said even though he was gravely wounded he struggled with Betty for possession of the weapon. He lost the struggle and,that’s when Betty turned the gun on herself.

The trial was going along smoothly until Deputy District Attorney Wildey asked Gray to repeat a conversation he’d had with Betty right before the shooting.  Gray snapped: “I will not repeat it.  It’s all cut and dried. Go ahead and shoot what you have.  I refuse to testify further in this case!” Gray then grabbed his crutch and hobbled away from the witness stand, ignoring the judge’s order to answer the question. That was it for Gray.  He didn’t take the stand again. gray quentin

The case went to the jury of six men and six women who, just as the jury in the first trial, had to be sequestered.

When the jury returned, Gray was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He’d rolled the dice on a second trial and come up snake eyes. His second sentence was harsher than the first.

In 1958, after 24 years in prison, Gray appealed again on the grounds of double jeopardy. The plea was rejected. Shortly afterwards he sought legal relief via habeas corpus. He wasn’t represented by S.S. Hahn because Hahn had died mysteriously in the swimming pool at his son’s cabin in Castaic. The two public defenders representing Gray were successful and he was ordered returned to Los Angeles for re-sentencing for the crime of second degree murder. I haven’t been able to find out what happened at the re-sentencing hearing.

Gray Everett McNeer died in Sacramento on July 27, 1964.

NOTE:  I’m going to try to find out what happened to Gray. If any of you find anything please let me know!

Justice Times Two, Part 2

A Coroner’s jury found Gray McNeer responsible for the murder of his wife, Betty.  The gun used in the murder and attempted suicide was a weapon Gray had stolen from Harry Harris, a friend of his.  Harris, a harbor guard, discovered his gun and some shells were missing after Gray’s visit the night prior to the shooting.  When detectives showed Harris the weapon, he identified it as his own.

Gray wasn’t able to appear at any hearings because he was in serious condition. On August 6th his attorney, S.S. Hahn, announced that Gray would appear in court that morning. The defendant was in bad shape as a result of the gunshot wound to his head. He was blind in one eye, deaf in one ear,  partially paralyzed and he still had a bullet lodged in his brain. Despite the gravity of his injuries, Gray appeared for his preliminary hearing before Municipal Judge Galbreth, just as S.S. Hahn said he would. The defendant’s head was swathed in bandages and he was in a wheel chair, but at least he’d made it.

mcneer and motherGray’s mother, Lola, remained at her son’s bed side and on August 24th it was reported that she had given her official consent for an operation to remove the bullet from his brain.  It isn’t clear why a man in his 30s would need his mother’s consent, but it may have been that he was in no condition to give it himself.  S.S. Hahn told the court that in his present condition Gray was in imminent danger of death and that, even if he survived, he might be become “an imbecile.”  The operation was given odds of 100 to 1 that it would succeed; but it was Gray’s only hope.

S.S. Hahn requested a continuance of the trial so that Gray could undergo the potentially lethal surgery.  The request was granted. But would any of the local surgeons be willing to undertake such a delicate procedure?  The answer was no.  Specialists at General Hospital declined to perform the surgery even though they agreed that Gray was doomed without it.  The same group of surgeons put Gray’s odds at less that 1000 to 1 for survival.

Of course S.S. Hahn had a lot to say about the doctors’ refusal: “His mother wants that chance to be taken.  She wants to save her son and we are going to operate if it takes a court order to do it.”  The attorney found four brain specialists who were willing to volunteer for the surgery, but General Hospital balked.  Hahn said: “They tell us that nonresident physicians are not permitted to operate at the General Hospital and since the patient is charged with murder he cannot be removed from there.  Well, we will see what the courts have to say about that, too.” Judge Schmidt responded with a court order which permitted the outside physicians to perform the surgery on Gray’s brain.

Surgery was scheduled for September 8, 1934, but after he took a turn for the better the operation was put on hold indefinitely. Ten days later, Gray appeared in court once again. He was still bandaged and in a wheel chair. He entered a not guilty plea and he still publicly contended that Betty had shot him first and then killed herself.

McNeer and Hahn were in court on October 25th for opening statements. Gray was a pathetic sight. Would the jury be swayed in his favor even if they believed his misery was self-inflicted?  Hahn outlined his case for the jury.  He said that he was going to prove:

  • That Mrs. McNeer on three previous occasions had threatened to end her own life.
  • That several nights before the shooting, Mrs. McNeer went to the home of Harry B. Harris, special officer, at 1030 Hyperion Avenue, and sought to borrow his gun.
  • That the day before the shooting Mrs. McNeer called again at Harris’s home and remained there alone for some time.

Court adjourned when Gray collapsed and had to be returned to the County Jail Hospital.

The following day Gray was in court moaning, groaning and muttering incoherently. He yelled out: “You wouldn’t treat a yellow dog like you are treating me; why don’t somebody give me something?”  Following a few more outbursts, Judge Burnell addressed Gray: “You will have to keep quiet; this sort of thing will not be allowed at all, Mr. McNeer.  Thi sort of theatricalism has got to stop right now, and you might as well know it.”  Then the judge turned to Hahn and said: “Can’t you do something with your client, Mr. Hahn?”

mcneer and mother at trialHahn objected to the Judge’s admonition and there was a short recess.  Once back in the courtroom, Judge Burnell spoke to the jury:  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am making this statement to you at the suggestion and with the consent of counsel for both sides, the People and the defendant.  You, of course, could not help but observe the fact yesterday afternoon that the defendant was making more or loess noise, talking and groaning, and the Court made some remarks about ceasing the theatricals, or something of that sort.  That, of course, is something that you haven’t any business to pay any attention to, and I want you to entirely disregard it.  The defendant is here   on trial for one specific offense, and all the jury have any right to consider whatever is the evidence in the case and nothing else.  I know you will appreciate that and be able to do that, but for your information, in view of the apparent condition of the defendant, I am trying now to get hold of Dr. Blank, the jail physician, to come down here and tell us whether he thinks from his examination of the defendant there is any reason why the case should not continue. In other words, whether or not the defendant is in a condition physically and mentally that will preclude going ahead with the trial.  Until we hear from Dr. Blank, we will go ahead, and if there is any demonstration on the part of the defendant, you will disregard it.  You are not here to try anything except the facts in this case.”

Dr. Blank examined Gray and ascertained that he was in more pain than he had been in previously and that he was on sedatives continuously.  The doctor feared that Gray’s sanity was being affected and advised the judge to suspend the proceedings until a determination could be made.

The judge did exactly what Dr. Blank had advised him to do, and the trial was continued to October 29, 1934 at 10:00 a.m.  Gray’s sanity would be decided then based on an examination conducted by Drs. Benjamin Blank, Victor Parkin and Paul Bowers.

NEXT TIME: Will Gray McNeer’s trial continue

The Death of Love, Conclusion

Helen -- out like a light. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Helen — out like a light. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

Within hours of her conviction Helen had willed herself into a coma, just like she said she could do. Inmates in the jail who passed by Helen made cracks, to which she was oblivious, about the “sleeping beauty”. Maybe they were jealous, because if Helen regained consciousness she’d be svelte.  The first 5 days of her coma she lost 10 lbs! Nothing gets results like a diet of despair and guilt.

The jail physician, Dr. Benjamin Blank, examined Helen and declared that:

“She is suffering from a catatonic condition, a form of stupor brought on by extreme mental strain.”

Helen in a wheel chair. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen in a wheel chair. Photo courtesy LAPL.

He further stated:

“It is possible that the condition was brought on by fear during her trial that she might be hanged if convicted, or fear of serving the second-degree murder sentence fixed by the jury.”

A TIME Magazine article described Helen’s condition as:

“a fit of sulks so profound that half a dozen solemn psychiatrists could not even agree on a name for it, variously calling it ‘hysterical fugue,’ ‘split personality,’ ‘dementia praecox,’ ‘triumph of the subconscious,’ ‘self-imposed hypnosis,’ ‘voluntary stupor.'”

Legally, Helen could not be sentenced for her crime while in an insensible state. Her condition put justice for Harry on hold indefinitely.

Judge Smith was skeptical about Helen’s coma, and he wasn’t the only one.  Matron Vada Sullivan, who had seen many female prisoners during her tenure at the jail said:

“Mrs. Love is faking.  She has been causing us considerable trouble since the jury returned the verdict that found her guilty of second degree murder.  She has been stubborn and despondent.”

After several continuances of sentence, Judge Smith ordered court to be held in the hospital so that Helen’s reactions could be observed. There wasn’t much to see. Doctors stuck her with pins and otherwise abused the unconscious woman but she responded only when Dr. Samuel M. Marcus, the fifth psychiatrist to examine her, massaged her head and mentioned Harry’s name.  Helen muttered: “Please don’t go away, Harry!”

officials-study-helenHelen became known as “the husk woman”, and she remained unconscious for 158 hours.

After slapping and shaking her, which one can only hope weren’t the usual psychiatric treatments for a comatose patient, Dr. Marcus was finally successful in awakening Helen by whispering in her ear:

“Here I come—that Dr. Marcus again—I’m knocking, knocking at that door—let me in now, Helen! Let me in, I say! I am going to get through that door so open it! Wake up!”

Helen did awake, while film crews recorded everything and her attorney stood by. It took 58 seconds for her to rise, and when she did she was terrified and begged for water. When Dr. Marcus asked if she was happy to be back in the land of the living she sobbed, ‘No, Oh, I haven’t done anything wrong! Let me go back!”

Helen, passed out in her mother's arms.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen, passed out in her mother’s arms. Photo courtesy LAPL.

She felt much better the next day. She said to the assembled newspapermen: “Don’t I look beautiful this morning?”

Helen was ravenously hungry. She’d been fed intravenously while she was out, but once she was upright she was treated to chicken broth with rice, buttered toast and two glasses of milk.

When asked about rumors that she was going to lapse into another neurotic coma, Helen smiled. She did her nails, wrote letters, read her fan mail, and expressed her disappointment at not being able to play golf with Jailer Clem Peoples.

She was sure she could beat him because she had once driven a golf ball 240 yards. She said, “Can you imagine that? And me a girl?”

When all was said and done, Helen was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to serve from seven years to life in prison. Helen left HOJJ (Hall of Justice Jail,) for Tehachapi dressed as though off to a fashionable tea. She was wearing a black crepe dress embroidered with silver flowers and a black cloth coat.  Around her shoulders was a silver fox fur. She wore a black straw hat which, she said, she had bought in Paris. Black shoes, gloves, and purse completed her off-to-prison ensemble. Women dressed up for everything in those days, and a trip to prison was no exception. It paid to look your best.

Helen heads off to Tehachapi.  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen heads off to Tehachapi. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Helen did well at Tehachapi, she even won first place in a baking contest for her coconut cake.

While Helen was baking awarding winning cakes in prison, her mother-in-law, Cora, was embarking on a scorched earth policy where her former daughter-in-law was concerned.

Tehachapi bake-off. And the winner is...  Photo courtesy LAPL.

Tehachapi bake-off. And the winner is… Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora went to court to prove that there was no evidence of a marriage between Harry and Helen.  She got an injunction barring Helen from representing herself as Harry’s widow or using the name Love.

In an unrivaled act of optimism, Helen applied for parole in November 1938 under her maiden name, but was told she would have to wait two years before applying again. Not unreasonable given that she had shot a man to death a year earlier.

In 1940 the litigious Cora sued Rio Grande Oil Co., Richfield Oil Co., KNX and CBS for $1M in a libel suit.

Cora Love (right) and a friend in the courtroom during Helen's trial. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora Love (right) and a friend in the courtroom during Helen’s trial. Photo courtesy LAPL.

Cora claimed her character had been defamed in a broadcast of the radio program “Calling All Cars” (an episode entitled The Silver Cord which aired on January 13, 1939.) I haven’t found any record of her suit, so I don’t know if she won.  But I doubt it. Listen to the episode and decide for yourself if she had a legitimate complaint. Actually, everyone should have complained. The heavily hyperbolic episode didn’t flatter any of the characters.

If Helen was paroled in 1940 it didn’t make news; however, she was eventually released. It is difficult to trace women, especially in years past when they routinely took their husband’s surnames. That said, I think I’ve been able to ferret out a few bits of information on Helen.  As far as I can tell she was married a total of four times (three if you agree with Cora Love who adamantly denied Helen was ever legally married to Harry). As far as I know, Helen managed not to kill any of her other husbands or lapse into any more self-induced comas.

Helen Wills passed away in San Francisco, California on November 1, 2000 at the ripe old age of 95.

As for Cora Love, she passed away in Riverside, California on 17 Nov 1950 ten days following her 85th birthday.