Vera Stretz Trial: 1936

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Vera Stretz Trial: 1936

Defendant: Vera Stretz
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Samuel S. Leibowitz
Chief Prosecutor: Miles O'Brien
Judge: Cornelius F. Collins
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: March 20April 3, 1936
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: For defense counsel Samuel S. Leibowitz, the Vera Stretz case was the 116th of 139 consecutive trials in which he saved his client from death in the electric chair. Many lawyers believe the case marked his peak as a trial lawyer before he became one of the New York courtroom's most respected judges.

Vera Stretz was 29 years old when she spent some of her $35,000 inheritance from her mother on a cruise aboard the Vulcania in December 1934. There she met Dr. Fritz Gebhardt, a German financier who was 42. Chatting in German (her German was better than his English), they became casual friends.

Soon after returning to New York, Stretz and the doctor dated. Witty and gallant, Dr. Gebhardt seemed determined to sweep Vera Stretz off her feet. But he had a wife and two children in Germany. The marriage, he said, had been one in name only for 10 years.

"He told me that he loved me," Stretz later said. "And then he said that he was an unusual person. Ordinary laws applied to ordinary people, but for an unusual person there must be different standards. I was fascinated by him." Stretz found herself so deeply in love that in May she traveled with him to Lake George as Mrs. Gebhardt.

Soon Stretz moved to Gebhardt's building, Beekman Towers, taking an apartment two floors below his. As he traveled often, they exchanged passionate love letters.

By November, Stretz regularly responded to late-night calls from Gebhardt, applying a heating pad to help him through stomach cramps as often as once a week. Early in November, when he returned from a European trip, he said, "I am going away again in December and you are going with me."

Stretz assumed he had decided to end his marriage. "I'd better hurry with the wedding invitations," she said. No, said Gebhardt, he knew now that he was not the type to get married. They would go on as before.

She told him she would not compromise: She wanted a home and a husband. "No one has ever left me before," he announced, "and you are not going to leave me."

Late in the night of November 11, in great stomach pain, Gebhardt called her. She put a coat on over her nightgown, slipped into shoes, and went up the back stairs.

A Revolver and Bloodstains

At 2:30 a.m., shots were heard in Beekman Towers. The police were called. They discovered Vera Stretz sitting on the stairway just below the third floor. In her large handbag they found a. 32-caliber revolver, a box of bullets, two spent shells, and a crumpled silk nightgown with fresh wet bloodstains.

"Did you shoot the man upstairs?" they asked.

"Yes, I did," sobbed Stretz. "But please don't ask me why I did it." She said she was on the way to turn herself in.

The police grilled her for hours, but she would say nothing more. Her father, Frank Stretz, sent for Samuel Leibowitz, who had defended the Scottsboro boys (see separate entry) and was known as the best criminal lawyer in the country. The newspapers called Stretz "the icy blonde" because she wouldn't talk. They dug up Gebhardt's background: He had flown in World War I's famed Richtofen Squadron, was a pal of pilot Hermann Goering, held doctorates in both philosophy and political economy, had made half a million dollars in international business deals, but had made the mistakefrom Nazi Germany's point of viewof marrying a non-Aryan. He had, however, moved out, leaving her with two children and no divorce.

Vera Stretz Tells what Happened

When the trial began on March 20, 1936, defense attorney Leibowitz probed each juror's knowledge of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the German philosopher whose idea of a super-race attracted Adolf Hitler, and who said, "Man shall be trained for war and woman for the recreation of the warrior; all else is folly." Then, with Vera Stretz on the stand for 13 hours, Leibowitz carefully produced testimony on Gebhardt's attitude toward marriage and toward her. When she announced the night of November 11 that she would not continue their relationship, she testified, Gebhardt had thrown her on the bed and raped her.

Next, laughing at her and saying, "If you want to make it the last night, you will have to make it a good one," he demanded that she perform an act of sodomy so foreign to her, and so shameful, that she had been unable to tell the police. Now she recounted it, at the insistence of Judge Cornelius Collins, only through violent, uncontrollable sobbing. Recalling seeing a gun in Gebhardt's chest of drawers when she looked for his heating pad, she seized it. The doctor, crying, "You damned whore, I will kill you," grabbed at the gun, she said. It went off. He fell on the bed, got up, lunged again at her, and she shot again.

Prosecutor Miles O'Brien cross-examined her for four fours. She killed, he insisted, in a hot fever of jealousy because Gebhardt wouldn't give up his wife for her: "She is a tigress when provoked." But he was unable to produce a single contradiction in Stretz's testimony.

The judge's charge lasted five hours, defining first-degree murder, second-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter, and reasonable doubt, excusable homicide, and justifiable homicide. "If you believe her story," he finished acidly, "acquit her."

Within three hours, the jury did so. The furious judge went to his chambers without thanking the jury for its services.

The next day, Stretz met the press. "Don't let this ruin your life," said a woman reporter.

"My life is ruined already," said Vera Stretz.

Years later, the defendant in this trial was identified only as one Laura Parr. When and how her name was changed from Vera Stretz remains a secret buried with her ruined life.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

The New, York Times. See Stretz, Vera, in The New, York Times Index, November 12, 1935April 4, 1936.

Reynolds, Quentin. Courtroom: The Story of Samuel S. Leibowitz. New York: Farrar, Straus and Co., 1950.