Alexander Pantages Trials: 1929
Alexander Pantages Trials: 1929
Defendant: Alexander Pantages
Crime Charged: Rape
Chief Defense Lawyers: Earl M. Daniels, W. J. Ford, Jerry Giiesler, and W. I. Gilbert
Chief Prosecutors: Burton Fitts, and Robert P. Stewart
Judge: Charles Fricke
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trials: First: October 4-27, 1929; Second: November 3-27, 1931
Verdict: First trial: Guilty; Second trial: Not guilty
Sentence: First trial: 50 years imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: The Alexander Pantages case marked a turning point in California law as the state's Supreme Court ruled on appeal that, where rape was alleged, if the girl was under 18, evidence of her previous sexual activity was admissible to discredit her testimony that she had been criminally attacked. The case also established a national reputation for defense attorney Jerry Giesler, who went on to handle many Hollywood cases.
By 1929, 54-year-old Alexander Pantages, a Greek immigrant who had never learned to read or write any language, had put together a chain of 60 vaudeville-and-movie palaces across the western half of the United States. Those in the know thought him worth $30 million.
On August 9, 17-year-old Eunice Irene Pringle, a well-trained dancer hoping to book her act on the Pantages circuit, appeared at Pantages' Los Angeles, California office, insisting, despite several previous turn-downs, on an interview with "Alexander the Great," as he was known in Hollywood. Reluctantly, he agreed and showed her into his private office on the mezzanine level of his theater.
Shortly, matinee moviegoers saw Eunice Pringle, her clothing disarranged, running into the street, screaming that she had been raped. Within days, a preliminary hearing produced an indictment and the press made Pantages the nation's best-known "wealthy old goat" in a sordid scandal.
Pantages' defense was that the young woman had thrown herself at him like a tigress, tearing at his shirt, suspenders, and trousers, and screaming at him. It had taken all his strength to push the athletic young dancer from his office.
As the trial began, Hollywood law partners W.J. Ford and W.I. Gilbert asked bright junior attorney Jerry Giesler to cross-examine. He led Pringle back and forth through her story several times. Then he asked, "Did your studies in dramatic school include a course in memory training?"
"Were you taught to express your emotions dramatically?"
Giesler's thought, he said later, was that although Miss Pringle had told her pitiful tale several times to the press and to the law, she had scarcely varied a comma each time.… I pointed out that her story seemed rehearsed as only a girl who was studying acting would have rehearsed it."
Schoolgirl versus "Slinky"
Next, Giesler asked Pantages' accuser, "Is that the dress you were wearing the day you say you were attacked?"
Eunice Pringle was dressed like a 13-year-old schoolgirl: blue dress, Dutch collar and cuffs, black stockings and Mary Jane shoes, small black bag and black gloves, long hair down her back and tied with a bow.
Giesler asked Judge Charles Fricke to order her to dress the next day in the same outfit and makeup she had worn to the Pantages Theatre. The jurors then saw not a schoolgirl but a well-endowed young woman in a revealing and (to use Giesler's word) "slinky" scarlet dress. Now his cross-examination tried to explore earlier acts of unchastity on her part—including a live-in affair with 40-year-old Nick Dunave, a Russian dancer. But the judge sustained the prosecution's objections and cut off the line of questioning.
The jury found "The Great God Pan" guilty. His sentence: 50 years in state prison. On appeal to the California Supreme Court, Giesler filed a three-volume, 1,200-page brief citing hundreds of cases and authorities. It pointed out that the lower court had erred in not permitting testimony on the earlier immoral conduct of the complaining witness. "There were so many new elements in that brief," Giesler later said, "that the final decision established precedent throughout the nation."
The state supreme court granted Pantages a new trial. Admitting evidence of Eunice Pringle's private life and conduct, it marked the first time in which the defense could probe the morals of an underage girl who claimed that she was criminally attacked.
Giesler even implied a conspiracy to frame Pantages. The jury found him not guilty. On her deathbed many years later, Pringle alleged that her boyfriend, Nick Dunave, had received a big payment from Joseph P. Kennedy, who had been determined to gain control over movie distribution.
In recent years, the trend in both federal and state courts has been to rule inadmissible evidence concerning the alleged victim's past sexual behavior in rape cases. Such evidence was barred from federal courts by Congress in 1978 (Rule of Evidence 412).
—Bernard Ryan, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Giesler, Jerry, as told to Pete Martin. The Jerry Giesler Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960.
Nash, Jay Robert. Encyclopedia of World Crime. Wilmette, Ill.: CrimeBooks, 1990.