Cheryl Christina Crane Inquest: 1958

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Cheryl Christina Crane Inquest: 1958

Defendant: Cheryl Christina Crane
Crime Investigated: Homicide of Johnny Stompanato
Chief Defense Lawyer: Jerry Geisler
Chief Prosecutor: William B. McKesson
Coroner: Theodore J. Curphey
Place: Los Angeles, California
Date of Inquest: April 11, 1958
Verdict: Justifiable homicide

SIGNIFICANCE: The explosive plot and star-studded cast of this particular Hollywood spectacle once again showed that the celluloid screen is no match for real life. Movie stars and mobsters-and a 14-year-old girl facing possible charges of murder kept America hanging on the verdict of a Los Angeles coroner's inquest.

Late on Good Friday, April 4, 1958, police were summoned to 730 North Bedford Drive, the Beverly Hills, California home of screen goddess Lana Turner. The report said that someone had died. Lights blazed in the Moorish mansion as two detectives entered. In the bedroom they came across a small group of people trying to pump some life back into the unreceptive body of Johnny Stompanato, latest in a long line of Turner's lovers and bodyguard to notorious gambler Mickey Cohen. All of their efforts were in vain. A single stab wound had severed the aorta. Police Chief Clinton B. Anderson was irked to see Jerry Giesler, the "attorney to the stars," already in attendance. Giesler's reputation as a high-priced lawyer with a knack for winning difficult cases was legendary around Hollywood. Anderson asked to see Turner. Clearly distraught, her first words to him were, "Can I take the blame for this horrible thing?"

"No, not unless you have committed the act, Miss Turner," said Anderson. After more soul-searching she mumbled, "Okay, it was my daughter."

Fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane, Turner's daughter by a previous marriage, was taken down to the police station. The next day District Attorney William B. McKesson proclaimed himself dissatisfied with Turner's version of events and announced an inquest for the following week, to determine if Cheryl Crane should be charged with murder. Although still a minor, Cheryl faced life imprisonment if found guilty of murder.

Later, Mickey Cohen, looking every inch the mobster in a felt hat and wide-lapeled suit, provided a bizarre interlude when he was asked to identify the body of his former bodyguard. Chewing on a mouthful of gum, the gambler drawled, "I refuse to answer on the grounds I may be accused of this murder," an odd response that nobody understood and nobody bothered to question.

Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers

Cameras from ABC and CBS lined the Los Angeles courtroom on April 11, 1958, ready to film what promised to be the TV event of the year. The radio networks went one better, broadcasting live when Coroner Theodore J. Curphey gaveled the proceedings to order at 9:00 a.m. After the introduction of the autopsy report and other formalities, it was time for Turner to testify.

Turner had played many roles in her life but none more important than this. She walked steadily to the stand. By now all of America was aware of her tempestuous affair with Stompanato, a third-rate hoodlum and professional gigolo. Their relationship had lasted a little over a year, 12 months of roller-coaster emotion and bruising physical battles.

They had been fighting again on the night of Good Friday. "He started shaking me badly," she told the court in a tremulous voice. "He said that if he said for me to jump, I would jump he would even cut my face or cripple me." Under Jerry Giesler's gentle prompting, Turner went on: "As I broke away from his holding me [sic] and I turned around to face the door my daughter was standing there I said, 'Please, Cheryl, please don't listen to any of this. Please go back to your room.'"

When Turner broke down once during her testimony, clicking cameras recorded every emotion on her tear-stained face. Gathering her composure, she described how Stompanato had grabbed a hanger from the closet and made as if to strike her with it. "I said, 'Don't ever touch me again. I am absolutely finished. This is the end. I want you out.'"

What happened next, she said, was a blur. Cheryl came rushing into the bedroom and seemed to punch Stompanato in the stomach. He collapsed onto his back. Only then did Turner realize that he had been stabbed. While Cheryl stood sobbing, her mother ran to the bathroom for a towel. "I didn't know what to do and then I put the towel there [on the wound] and Mr. Stompanato was making dreadful sounds in his throat gasping, terrible sounds."

At this point a deputy sheriff showed Turner the eight-inch kitchen knife that Cheryl had used to stab Stompanato. She stared at it grimly for a second, then looked away.

As Turner left the stand an unidentified man in the public gallery stood up and shouted, "Lies, lies, all lies! This mother and daughter were both in love with Stompanato. All you Hollywood people are no good." Still yelling, the stranger strode from the court and was never seen again.

Cheryl's Statement Introduced

Because of her age Cheryl was not present at the inquest, but part of her statement made to Chief Anderson on the night of the stabbing was read into the record as follows:

Chief Anderson: Tell us what happened.

Cheryl: They had an argument he was threatening Mother.

Chief Anderson: Where was this argument taking place?

Cheryl: First in my bedroom, then in mother's room.

Chief Anderson: Did you go downstairs and pick up a knife in the kitchen?

Cheryl: Yes.

Chief Anderson: Then you took it into the room?

Cheryl: Yes, in case he tried to hurt Mommy.

Chief Anderson: Then you thought your mother's life was in danger?

Cheryl: He kept threatening her and I thought he was going to hurt her, so I went into the room and stuck him with the knife. He screamed and asked me what I was doing. I ran out of the room. Mother called me back into the bedroom to help her again I called Daddy before I went back into the room and told him to get over here fast.

Shortly before noon the 10 men and 2 women of the coroner's jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide. Afterward, District Attorney McKesson, who had attended the inquest, announced to reporters: "After what I have heard today, and unless some new facts are uncovered, it would not be my inclination to prosecute her [Cheryl] on criminal charges."

Although this concluded the criminal proceedings, Stompanato's family filed a $752,250 civil suit against Lana Turner and Cheryl's father, alleging that parental neglect had caused the death of Johnny Stompanato. Jerry Giesler arranged a settlement of the suit of about $20,000.

Both mother and daughter survived the ordeal well. Oddly enough, the incident revived Lana Turner's flagging movie career. Her next film Imitation Of Life was a great box-office success and led to several more. Cheryl Crane, after further but minor skirmishes with authority, settled down and joined her father in his restaurant business.

The inquest into Stompanato's death afforded instructive as well as compelling viewing. For the majority of Americans, Lana Turner's torment yielded a unique opportunity to glimpse an absorbing and critical stage of the judicial process that is rarely reported by the press or understood by the public.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Crane, Cheryl And Jahr, Cliff. Detour. New York: Arbor House, 1988.

Crimes And Punishment. Vol. 14. England: Phoebus, 1974.

Munn, Michael. The Hollywood Murder Casebook. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Turner, Lana. Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth. New York, Dutton, 1982.