Al Matthews, Celebrated Defense Lawyer, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Longtime Los Angeles lawyer Al Matthews, whose clients included convicted killers Barbara Graham, L. Ewing Scott and Fred Stroble in sensational court cases of the 1950s, died Wednesday in Yuba City. He was 79.

Matthews’ niece, Joan Wilson, said Matthews suffered a stroke in February. He had been living in the Northern California community since last year.

Matthews, one of 13 children of a Dubuque, Iowa, judge, attended Southwestern University School of Law here and began his career with the Los Angeles County public defender’s office. It was in that job that he defended Stroble, 68, who was convicted of killing a 6-year-old girl.

He entered private practice and in 1954 was appointed by the state Supreme Court to represent Barbara Graham after a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge imposed the death penalty for Graham’s participation in the bludgeon slaying of a Burbank woman. Despite Matthews’ efforts, Graham was executed in January, 1957.


Scott, convicted for the murder of his wife--whose body was never found--did not go to the gas chamber, but did go to prison.

The attorney was no stranger to controversy. Matthews’ constant fight for the abolition of capital punishment prompted him to lend his name in 1968 to a group seeking clemency for Sirhan Sirhan, convicted assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

In 1974, he relinquished his right to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court to protest a ruling by the justices that limited the scope of the 1966 Miranda decision on defendants’ rights to counsel.

He stirred a fuss in the late 1950s when he leased the Gas House, a Venice beatnik hangout where nightlong bongo drumming made the neighbors furious. Matthews explained he was simply trying to “establish a new cultural center.”


Matthews leaves his wife, Emily, from whom he was once divorced and remarried last June.

Funeral services will be at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Old North Church, Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.