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Counsel For The Indefensible

June 2024
5min read

Charles F. Mootry had met his wife when she was dancing in a seedy Los Angeles cabaret called the Club Theater, and married her with the intention, he told his friends, of putting her to work as a prostitute. Soon he took up with another woman and started saying that he wanted to get rid of his wife. Then he shot her—or so it seemed to everyone in the courtroom in December of 1899. Neighbors testified that they had heard the couple quarreling before the gunshot, and Mootry’s contention that his wife had committed suicide was, to say the least, unconvincing. Moreover, Mootry was not an attractive witness. He chewed gum constantly, leered at the jury, and once when two women he knew entered the courtroom, he beamed, clapped his hand to his mouth, and yelled out, “Oh, Mama!” Things didn’t look so good for Charles Mootry.

On the other hand, he had gotten Earl Rogers to defend him, and Rogers was working on the jury with a ruthless skill and audacity that nobody else in the country could approach. Rogers was not talking about his client. He was talking about marriage. Remember, he told the first juror, “those unforgettable days when you courted your girl in that little Illinois town...the thrill of that moonlit Sunday night when you sat holding hands on the steps of the First Methodist Church of Chillicothe....” On he went, by turns lulling and compelling, through the courtships of every juror, and ended by gesturing to Mootry and saying how much he must have loved his wife to take her from stage to altar: “And, brethren, men who love greatly, no matter what their moral or social degree, do not slay those they love.” Mootry and his wife weren’t quarreling: she was going deaf, and Mootry had to shout to make himself heard; in fact, it was that very loss of hearing that so depressed her she took her life.

It all sounds preposterous, of course. But it didn’t when Earl Rogers was saying it. The jury acquitted Mootry on the first ballot.

Afterward Mootry came over to Rogers and stuck out his hand. The lawyer recoiled. “Get away from me, you slimy pimp,” he said. “You know you’re guilty as hell!”

Most of Rogers’s clients were. “If you are guilty,” a turn-of-the-century courtroom saying ran, “hire Earl Rogers.” Rogers was the greatest criminal lawyer of his day. During his career he won 183 acquittals against fewer than 20 convictions. But something of the ambivalence he felt toward his job is reflected in his response to his client’s congratulations.

No actor ever rehearsed a part more painstakingly than Earl Rogers did his addresses to a jury.

He was born near Buffalo, New York, the son of a Methodist minister who was drawn west by one of Southern California’s real estate booms when Earl was a small boy. The Reverend Rogers hoped his son would become a preacher too, but Rogers wanted to be a surgeon. There wasn’t money for that, and by his late teens Rogers was married and scratching out a living as a reporter for Los Angeles papers. The job brought him into the courts; he decided to study law, and he was admitted to the bar in 1897.

Rogers did not like criminal law; he considered it a cut below civil practice. But in 1899 a plumber named William Alford shot Jay E. Hunter, one of the town’s leading attorneys, and the bullet that ended Hunter’s life set the course of Rogers’s. Called upon to defend Alford, the young lawyer faced a seemingly hopeless case: Alford had been armed with a pistol, Hunter only with a cane, and the plumber’s insistence that he had fired in self-defense after the attorney had cudgeled him to the ground was refuted by the coroner’s testimony that the bullet had driven downward through Hunter’s body.

The trial was going against Alford when Rogers rose to make the sort of melodramatic demand that would become his hallmark: he called for Hunter’s intestines to be brought into the court. The prosecution protested vehemently, but eventually the grisly exhibit was produced, and Rogers got an expert witness to confirm that in fact the bullet had traveled upward: to have followed the course it did, Hunter would have had to be bending over—undoubtedly plying his cane just as Alford had claimed.

Alford went free and Earl Rogers found himself famous; he may not have liked defending criminals, but he liked the fame. From then on he specialized in criminal law, and it soon became clear to the legal community how very good he was at it. He grew so skilled at converting murder to self-defense that policemen would ask each other with sour amusement, “Has Earl found the second gun yet?”

Before long the public knew him too. His daughter, Adela, recalled sitting with him in his office one day when an elderly Chinese man came in and asked what fee Rogers charged for defending a murderer. Rogers told him, and the man counted out the money in gold, then started for the door. “Hey!” said Rogers, “come back here. What’s all this? Where are you going?”

“I go kill the man now,” said the Chinese. “Then I be back.”

Rogers had a fine legal mind and a memory for detail that astonished and infuriated the lawyers who went up against him; but what made his reputation and saved his clients’ lives was his acting. No stage professional ever prepared more painstakingly to bring a seemingly effortless and spontaneous effect before an audience. He knew that most of his clients were guilty and he knew that a pyrotechnic performance was the only way to get them off. When the prosecution made a telling argument, Rogers would rise in blazing and spurious rage to create a scene that would get him chastised and threatened with contempt of court—and make the jury forget the point that had been scored just before he detonated.

His formidable energy was fueled by an equally formidable vanity. Just as he kept his preparations for a case hidden from a jury, so did he from his partners; he read in secret, wanting his colleagues to believe his mind was the only legal library he needed. He was the first lawyer to dare wear a pair of spats into a West Coast courtroom, and in time he adopted a lorgnette, through which he would squint disdainfully when he wanted to provoke people on the stand into fury. “Rogers with his lorgnette took over...for cross-examination,” wrote a reporter in the Los Angeles Examiner. “Rogers can ask a man his name in a tone that calls him a liar, perjurer and crawling reptile all at once.”

However florid his techniques, they impressed a man who probably knew more about the business than anyone else in America. When in 1912 the great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow found himself accused of attempting to bribe jurors, he hired Earl Rogers as his attorney. Given the right jurors, Darrow said once, “I could get Judas Iscariot off with a five dollar fine.” And nobody could work a jury better than Rogers. In a departure from the usual procedure, Darrow took care of the histrionics when he testified in his own defense, and Rogers delivered a crisp summation to the jury. Speaking of a private detective’s contention that Darrow had empowered him to bribe jurors, Rogers said: “Will you tell me how any sane, sensible man who knows anything about the law business—and this defendant has been in it for thirty-five years—could make himself go to a detective and say to him: just buy all the jurors you want. I put my whole life, my reputation, I put everything I have into your hands. I trust you absolutely. I never knew you until two or three months ago and I don’t know much about you now. But there you are. Go to it.”

Darrow was acquitted.

That trial took place at the zenith of Rogers’s career. He was earning one hundred thousand dollars a year, but already he was destroying himself. In between victories the Methodist minister’s boy who had hoped to save lives as a surgeon, and who instead had stumbled into renown as a defender of murderers, took to increasingly gaudy drinking bouts. For a while he went on, sobering up in Turkish baths and somehow getting himself back into the courtroom for the next case, red-eyed but impeccable. William Fallen, the “Great Mouthpiece” of the 1920s, said, “Even when he’s drunk, Earl Rogers is better than any other stone-sober lawyer in the whole damned country.”

He wasn’t. A few years after the Darrow trial, he lost his first client to the gallows. By 1919 his drinking had evolved into a slow, deliberate suicide attempt. “I don’t want to live long enough to hear them say, ‘There goes poor old Earl Rogers,’” he told his daughter. Soon there were no more clients. His last argument in a courtroom was against being confined in an insane asylum. He walked out a free man.

He was fifty-two years old when he finally succeeded in dying, in a Los Angeles rooming house on February 22, 1922. The New York Times gave him a thirty-five-word obituary.

So went poor old Earl Rogers. But a few years later his daughter gave him the death he would have wanted. When Adela Rogers St. Johns, who eventually became one of Hearst’s most famous correspondents, wrote her novel and screenplay , A Free Soul, she had the lawyer hero win his most difficult case and collapse on the courtroom floor at the moment of his greatest triumph.


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