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
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
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
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
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
July 10, 2003
TUNNEL VISIONS, Pasadena Weekly, Caltrans Tenants Association
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
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
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
May 8, 2003
SOME MTA DRIVERS GET PHYSICAL, Daily News of Los Angeles
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
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
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
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
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
February 4, 1994
PROBLEMS PILE UP ALONG METRO LINE, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
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
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
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
September 28, 1992
METRO RAIL COST-OVERRUN TAB ADDS TO CITY HALL FISCAL WOES, Los Angeles
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
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.