16 September 2009

Earl Rogers, legendary lawyer

Charles F. Mootry had met his wife when she was dancing in a seedy Los Angeles cabaret called the Club Theater, and married her with the intention, he told his friends, of putting her to work as a prostitute. Soon he took up with another woman and started saying that he wanted to get rid of his wife. Then he shot her—or so it seemed to everyone in the courtroom in December 1899. Neighbors testified that they had heard the couple quarreling before the gunshot, and Mootry’s contention that his wife had committed suicide was, to say the least, unconvincing.

Moreover, Mootry was not an attractive witness. He chewed gum constantly, leered at the jury, and once when two women he knew entered the courtroom, he beamed, clapped his hand to his mouth, and yelled out, “Oh, Mama!” Things didn’t look so good for Charles Mootry. On the other hand, he had gotten Earl Rogers to defend him, and Rogers was working on the jury with a ruthless skill and audacity that nobody else in the country could approach.

Rogers was not talking about his client. He was talking about marriage. Remember, he told the first juror, “those unforgettable days when you courted your girl in that little Illinois town … the thrill of that moonlit Sunday night when you sat holding hands on the steps of the First Methodist Church of Chillicothe.…” On he went, by turns lulling and compelling, through the courtships of every juror, and ended by gesturing to Mootry and saying how much he must have loved his wife to take her from stage to altar: “And, brethren, men who love greatly, no matter what their moral or social degree, do not slay those they love.” Mootry and his wife weren’t quarreling: she was going deaf, and Mootry had to shout to make himself heard; in fact, it was that very loss of hearing that so depressed her she took her life.

It all sounds preposterous, of course. But it didn’t when Earl Rogers was saying it. The jury acquitted Mootry on the first ballot. Afterward Mootry came over to Rogers and stuck out his hand. The lawyer recoiled. “Get away from me, you slimy pimp,” he said. “You know you’re guilty as hell!”

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