Gertrude Morris Trial: 1952
Gertrude Morris Trial: 1952
Defendant: Gertrude Morris
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Jake Ehrlich
Chief Prosecutor: Norman Elkington
Judge: Harry J. Neubarth
Place: San Francisco, California
Date of Trial: January 22-February 11, 1952
Verdict: Guilty: manslaughter
Sentence: 1-10 years
SIGNIFICANCE: In this extraordinary murder trial, a dynamic defense counsel found himself fighting not just the prosecution but his client as well.
On the afternoon of April 10, 1951, Gertrude and Milton Morris were trading barbs at the latter's office in San Francisco. This was nothing new. For the past 10 years their marriage had been a loveless, crumbling union. Today, when Milton, a well-to-do executive, wanted to know why Gertrude refused to drive the new Chevrolet coupe he had just bought her, Gertrude ran off, sobbing hysterically. That evening the fight continued at the Morrises' luxurious Lakeside home, until 6.30 p.m. when Milton announced he was leaving for good and began packing his bags. Before he could reach the door, a. 32 caliber slug cut him down.
Gertrude Morris made no attempt to deny murder and when her trial opened on January 22, 1952, she seemed indifferent to her fate, laughing inanely while her counsel, Jake Ehrlich, succeeded in sitting a jury where women outnumbered men 3-1. The entire prosecution lasted only two-and-a-half hours, the briefest ever heard in a capital case at San Francisco's Superior Court. For Norman Elkington, chief assistant district attorney, the facts were plain: Morris admitted shooting her husband in the back, with premeditation, therefore it was first-degree murder.
Inspector Al Nelder told how Morris, when arrested at the crime scene, had been most insistent that there was no other woman involved. Nelder, puzzled, had asked, "Do you realize what you have done?"
"Yes, sir. I do now."
"Are you sorry?"
'I certainly am, because I loved him. Maybe that was my whole trouble, I loved him too much."
Another witness, neighbor George W. Jones, testified that Morris had knocked on his door at 2.00 a.m. and asked him to call the police. This timing was important because, on Morris's own admission, she had shot her husband some seven hours earlier and in all that time she had done nothing to help him. Ehrlich managed to mitigate this apparent callousness somewhat by getting Jones to agree that, in eight years, he had never heard the Morrises exchange a cross word.
Extraordinary Defense Opening
Then came Ehrlich's opening address, surely one of the most remarkable ever made by defense counsel. It amounted to a wholesale impeachment of his client's credibility, as he warned the jury that Morris would shape her story in such a way as to leave them no alternative but to send her to the gas chamber. Twice, in custody, she had attempted suicide, he said; now she was asking the state to finish the job. And contrary to what Morris had told the police, Ehrlich noted, she did suspect her husband of infidelity, in particular that he had been "intimate with his secretary."
Throughout all this Morris stared blankly into a handkerchief, emotionless. Then Ehrlich called her to the stand. A plain, plump woman, she sat with a wrinkled coat draped across her shoulders, answering questions wearily. After a few minutes she leaned towards the judge and murmured, "I want to plead guilty to first-degree murder."
Judge Harry J. Neubarth blinked. "What?" When she repeated her request the judge said, "You just tell the story. We'll let the jury decide what the verdict should be."
As Ehrlich fought to bring out details of the argument, Morris began to drift. Striding towards her, finger extended, Ehrlich shouted, "I've told you time and time again that I want you to tell how it happened, and not try to build it up so you'll be executed."
Straight away, Elkington was on his feet, objecting that counsel was leading the witness. In what was always a rowdy trial, the crowded gallery urged the rivals on. Amidst the bedlam, Ehrlich bellowed, "It is my moral duty to protect this woman. This woman is trying to destroy herself!"
Ehrlich explained that Morris's problems stemmed from an overnight train journey she and her husband had taken in 1941. Using a diagram that showed sleeping arrangements on the Pullman car, Ehrlich told how Gertrude had surprised Milton wrestling with the door to the adjoining compartment door. Behind that door was Rose Goolo, Milton's attractive, young secretary. Although Milton insisted that Gertrude had completely misinterpreted his actions, she was not convinced. Ten years on, when questioned by Ehrlich about this incident, Morris muttered, "I still think there was something wrong there."
On cross-examination she lapsed back into a dull torpor, repeatedly answering, "Yes," to every question posed by Elkington. "That's right, keep it up," jeered Ehrlich, "She'll say 'yes' to anything you ask her." When Ehrlich complained that "no man, no lawyer living ever heard anything like this," Morris called him over. "Can't we plead guilty to murder now, and have it over with?"
"No," snapped Ehrlich.
Defendant Flees Courtroom
When Rose Goolo took the stand, Morris fled hysterically into the judge's chambers, the only time she ever showed any interest or animation during the trial. Brought back sobbing into court, she heard Goolo admit that Milton Morris drove her to work, took her out to lunch "three or four times a week," and that he drove her home each night after work.
"What was your relationship with Morris?" demanded Ehrlich.
"I was his secretary."
"Any more than that?"
"No," she said primly, though later she conceded that they were "friends" and that Milton Morris bought her perfume.
In his closing speech it was noticeable that Elkington refrained from asking for the death penalty. But that didn't prevent him from heaping scorn on what he termed "Mr. Ehrlich's story." This prompted the pugnacious Ehrlich to square up to his much bigger opponent and shout, "If you indicate that I make up stories, Mr. Elkington, you are a common, ordinary street liar." Again, the gallery roared its approval.
After calm had been restored, Elkington got back on track. "She shot him … she saw him fall. She heard him cry, 'Get a doctor.' And she did not get a doctor. She walked away and let him bleed to death." Then Elkington delivered an earnest plea to the jury to exercise caution when heeding Ehrlich. "He is resourceful. He is an attorney you can count on to come up with an unexpected defense. If it succeeds, you will hear about it in the future as the clever defense in the Morris Case."
Elkington had good cause for concern. Ehrlich's peroration—an emotion-packed saga of a marriage gone wrong—was superb, culminating in a scornful assault on Milton Morris' attempts to placate his distraught wife with offers of jewelry. "What good is it to give a diamond ring if, as Mrs. Morris testified, he never put his arms around her… She didn't want any diamond ring, she wanted her husband." More than one juror had to wipe away a tear by the time Ehrlich sat down.
On February 11, 1952, Gertrude Morris was convicted of manslaughter, and she later received a jail term of 1—10 years. Allegedly, upon hearing the verdict, she turned to the flamboyant Ehrlich and said, "You are a very talented man, you missed your vocation on the stage … But maybe hanging [sic] would have been the best thing."
Suggestions for Further Reading
Ehrlich, J.W. A Lie in My Hands. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1965.