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JUSTICE: SWIFT AND RIGHTEOUS

By CHIP JACOBS

The killer with the face of a young Errol Flynn was led into the San Quentin gas chamber mid-morning on August 7, 1942. Maurice Briggs glanced around at the witnesses assembled for his state execution and, unrepentant to the end, mock-saluted them with an arm that the prison guards had neglected to strap down. Minutes later, after authorities fixed their oversight, the cyanide pellets were dropped, and Briggs’ little goodbye became his last act.

The 26-year-old drifter was not the first person to be gassed in California. That method, which replaced hanging as the official means of execution, was inaugurated in late 1938. But Briggs was the only one condemned to die for killing somebody in my family.

When it came to murder sentences in our grandparents’ era, California justice felt a little like Texas today. Capital punishment was incorporated into the penal code in the rough-and-tumble 1870s, with county sheriffs assigned to carry it out in their own jurisdictions. After 1891, the job was transferred to prison wardens at San Quentin and Folsom. The ultimate punishment, officials understood required professionalism.

 If you were on death row, you probably wouldn’t grow old there. While Hollywood movies played up eleventh-hour reprieves from the Governor’s office, the reality was a fairly steady use of the gas chamber, especially for homicides involving kidnapping and cop-killers.

By spring 1967, some 194 inmates had drawn their last breath at San Quentin. Change would soon blow, though. A reverberating 1972 California Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the state constitution halted executions. The decision, which the U.S. Supreme Court backed the following year, took 107 people off death row. It wouldn’t be until 1992 -- 15 years after California voters approved a sweeping capital punishment law opposed by former state Supreme Justice Rose Bird and other liberal jurists -- that another execution would be meted out here.

When the death penalty was reinstated, the landscape was much more polarized, juiced by lawsuit-happy interest groups, victims’-rights organizations and DNA testing that freed dozens of innocent people. None of that, however, was in play for the man who took my great-uncle’s life at 36.

Briggs, much like Gary Gilmore thirty years later as the last man to face capital punishment in Utah, proclaimed to reporters he’d rather give an eye for an eye than rot away in a cinder-block prison cell.

“Just hurry things alone,” Briggs said. “I’m ready for gas or whatever they give you here in California.”

Briggs had met Nat Ross, my mother’s favorite uncle, when he’d applied for a job at the rag-making factory Ross co-owned at 17th St. and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Why Ross was in manufacturing at all I’ve never figured out. As a teenager, he’d been wooed by the picture business from Brooklyn to L.A., and immediately found employment clerking for Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle. Too skilled for gopher-work, he was promoted to directing, then producing, and wound up with a slew of feature films on his resume, not to mention pals from studio mogul Irving Thalberg to “It Girl” actress Clara Bow.

Easygoing and quirky, Ross had a soft streak that others exploited. He’d hired Briggs, a parolee from the south, as a plant laborer, fired him for unknown reasons, re-hired him out of pity and then canned him a second time two weeks later.

During his stint at Cotton Products Corp., Briggs caught the eye of an attractive 21-year-old woman who flirted with him over textile orders. They married in a whirlwind romance, but it didn’t last. She accused him of serially beating her, and threw him out.

Briggs steamed about his misfortune from his downtown flophouse. He turned up at the plant drunk with a knife one day, informing Ross his days were numbered before the police shooed him away. Though he had no proof, Briggs suspected his former boss, who was happily married, was having a fling with his girl. So, he bought a powerful deer rifle and a box of shells with his unemployment check.

During a factory late shift, while workers hustled to fill a U.S. Navy order, he knocked on a side door and asked politely to speak with Ross. As Ross walked over, Briggs grabbed the rifle he’d stashed outside and fired two close-range shots at Ross’ chest, killing him before he hit the floor. Two-dozen employees saw the whole thing, but Briggs stayed calm. He merely walked a few blocks, threw the weapon onto somebody’s lawn and told a passerby they better call the cops.

“Am I sorry I did it?” he gloated. “Yeah I’m sorry I can’t do it again!”

In the days that followed, Ross’ slaying became a media feast for the city’s three big newspapers. Workplace violence was rare, and this case had show-business angles, a dashingly defiant suspect and a beautiful woman involved.

The coroner arranged the inquest. Once Briggs was formally charged, he refused to testify, pleading not guilty despite his earlier confession. It was only when the trial got underway that Briggs ditched his tough-guy veneer and changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity. Testifying in his own defense, Briggs told jurors he’d bought the gun to kill himself because his ex-wife was pregnant and she intended to abort the child (an “illegal operation” back in.) Inexplicably, suicidal thoughts became homicidal ones.

The nine men and three women on the jury didn’t buy his explanation of a crime of passion: they found him guilty. After the verdict, the second part of the trial was about Briggs’ sanity at the time of the murder. The district attorney had three alienists testify his actions reflected cool premeditation. He’d bought a gun. He’d planned the ambush. The jurors agreed, and the gas chamber was where they ordered him.

The trial had lasted all of a week.

As was the custom with death penalty cases, Briggs’ was automatically sent to the California Supreme Court for appeal. The verdict wasn’t overturned. Briggs’s last hope was clemency from then-Gov. Culbert Olson. The governor granted him a month’s reprieve, why it’s not clear.

The next month it expired, and Briggs paid at San Quentin for what he took away in Los Angeles. From the time he’d shot my great-uncle to his own execution, only a year-and-a-half had passed.

copyright Pasadena Weekly
A nearly identical version of this story appeared in the Pasadena Weekly as part of a special edition on capital punishment.

 

Money Train, published in Los Angeles City Beat. Why would U.S. Congressman Ernest Istook from Oklahoma come to Los Angeles to raise money? Perhaps because he holds the purse strings to critical federal transportation dollars.
March 10, 2005

MOVING DOWN THE ROAD, Pasadena Weekly
http://chipjacobs.com/a_movingdown.html
Moving Down the Road, published in the Pasadena Weekly. The Caltrans 700,000 square-foot tower owes its existence to the 1994 Northridge earthquake, union muscle, and a tincture of politics.
July 10, 2003

TUNNEL VISIONS, Pasadena Weekly, Caltrans Tenants Association
http://www.caltranstenants.com/tunnel.html
Tunnel Visions, published in Pasadena Weekly. Caltrans may dig deep to find a way out of its 710 Freeway debacle.
(Part III of Corridor of Shame series)
May 22, 2003

THE UNTOUCHABLES, Pasadena Weekly, Caltrans Tenants Association
http://www.caltranstenants.com/slumlord.html
The Untouchables, published in Pasadena Weekly. Slumlord Caltrans uses legal immunity to hold tenants and the cities of Los Angeles, Pasadena, and South Pasadena at bay, as long-needed repairs to homes the agency owns along the proposed 710 Freeway route fester. (Part II of Corridor of Shame series)
May 15, 2003

NO EXIT, Pasadena Weekly
http://chipjacobs.com/a_noexit.html
No Exit, published in Pasadena Weekly. Once stately properties that Caltrans bought 30 years ago to complete the still unfinished Long Beach 710 Freeway stand as a testament of neglect by one of the most powerful agencies in California. (Part I of Corridor of Shame series)
May 8, 2003

SOME MTA DRIVERS GET PHYSICAL, Daily News of Los Angeles
http://chipjacobs.com/a_mtadriversphys.html
Some MTA Drivers Get Physical, published in Daily News Los Angeles. Attacks on Metropolitan Transportation Agency riders not always punished and nearly 20 cases remain unsolved or lost due to poor record keeping.
June 24, 1996

SUBWAY TUNNEL WALLS AT RISK, REPORT WARNS, Daily News of Los Angeles
http://chipjacobs.com/pdfs/subwaytunnelwallsatrsk1.pdf
Subway Tunnel Walls at Risk, Report Warns, published in Daily News Los Angeles. Just three years after the first segment of the Metro Red Line was opened at a cost of $1.45 billion, the Army Corps of Engineers says the subway’s concrete walls are at risk of being eaten away by chemical-laced ground water.  MTA officials say water-damage threat small. 
April 11, 1996

MTA SPENT BIG TO SUGARCOAT TUNNELING, Daily News of Los Angeles
http://chipjacobs.com/pdfs/mtaspentbig1.pdf
MTA Spent Big to Sugarcoat Tunneling, published in Daily News Los Angeles. During the 1994 holiday season, the Metropolitan Transportation Agency spent about $400,000 in public funds to bring a Yule-tide bonanza to Hollywood boulevard. Opponents say humbug to mitigation efforts, labeling it as pork barrel or misguided.
September 24, 1995

HOMES OWNED BY CALTRANS NOT KEPT UP, RECORDS SHOW, The Los Angeles Times
http://chipjacobs.com/a_homesowned.html
Homes Owned by CalTrans Not Kept Up, Records Show, published in The Los Angeles Times. Dozens of homes the state acquired along the un-built Long Beach (710) Freeway pathway sit in such disrepair they either can’t be leased or whip up renters’ complaints about slumlord practices. Twenty-seven homes still part of the holdings are not even needed to construct the long-delayed project. Caltrans defends maintenance.
April 26, 1995

CALTRANS MISSED SAFETY DEADLINE, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
http://chipjacobs.com/pdfs/caltransmissed1.pdf
CalTrans Missed Safety Deadline, published in  the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. Despite a legally etched state deadline, Caltrans missed a key deadline to strengthen more than 1000 freeway bridges, including most of the structures crippled in the Northridge earthquake. Bridge contracts overdue.
February 4, 1994

PROBLEMS PILE UP ALONG METRO LINE, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
http://chipjacobs.com/pdfs/problemspileupmetro1.pdf
Problems Pile up Along Metro Line, published in San Gabriel Valley Tribune. First came the charges of shoddy construction. Then the claims of massive cost overruns.  Now more troubles are brewing for Los Angeles’ new subway:  wage violations against workers actually building the Metro Red Line.
October 16, 1993

FREEWAY WORK: A PERILOUS PAYCHECK, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
http://chipjacobs.com/pdfs/freewayworkperilouspaycheck1.pdf
Freeway Work: A Perilous Paycheck, published in San Gabriel Valley Tribune. Caltrans workers face death everyday and Caltrans needs to further protect its exposed maintenance crew.
Sept. 4, 1993

TRANSIT COMMISSION AUDITORS CAST EAGLE EYE ON TUTOR’S COSTS, Los Angeles Business Journal
http://chipjacobs.com/a_transit.html
Transit commission Auditors Cast Eagle Eye on Tutor’s Costs, published in Los Angeles Business Journal. Los Angeles County Transportation Commission auditors are questioning tens of thousands of dollars in overhead expenses that powerhouse Metro Rail contractor Tutor-Saliba Corp. submitted two years ago, according to a preliminary audit obtained by the Business Journal.
September 28, 1992

METRO RAIL COST-OVERRUN TAB ADDS TO CITY HALL FISCAL WOES, Los Angeles Business Journal
http://chipjacobs.com/a_metrorail.htm
Metro Rail Cost-Overrun Tab adds to the City Hall Fiscal Woes, published in Los Angeles Business Journal. The City of Los Angeles is on the hook to pay $100 million in Metro Rail Red Line construction overruns under a little-known cost-sharing deal with the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.
March 16, 1992

Title: The man
URL: http://www.chipjacobs.com/wd_theman.html

Almost broke, living on handouts with his mom in a shabby apartment outside post-war Los Angeles, Gordon Zahler, a paralyzed kid in his mid-twenties got an idea. He'd re-sell the music of a dead man -- the music his father, Lee Zahler, composed during his workhorse career in early Hollywood. Within a few years, mother and son would be working for MGM on a Doris-Day romp and for Hollywood's most beloved hack, Ed Wood Jr., on Plan Nine from Outer Space. A decade later they had a house above the Sunset Strip in a comeback story too farfetched for any screenplay.



 

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