Ellery E. Cuff, a Northern California farm boy who grew up to defend more than 4,000 accused criminals in a 35-year career with the largest public defender’s office in the country, is dead.
Cuff was 92 when he died Sept. 8 in a Pasadena convalescent hospital, said his grandniece, Vivian Girot, on Thursday.
Cuff began work with Los Angeles County in 1924 shortly after graduating from the USC School of Law. Originally with the probation office, he transferred to the public defender’s office in 1928. The office had been established only 14 years earlier.
He rose through the ranks and took over the office in 1949, retiring in 1963 to care for an ailing son, Girot said.
Los Angeles County had been the first in the United States to establish a force of attorneys to which the indigent could turn when at odds with the law.
To illustrate the inequities prevalent at the turn of the century, Cuff told (in a preretirement interview) of a local man who had spent 32 years in prison for murdering his wife’s lover when he caught the man in their bedroom.
Without an attorney the man pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
“If any of my deputies couldn’t have gotten him off with anything less than manslaughter, I would fire him,” Cuff said, adding that his office reopened the case in the 1940s and got the man pardoned.
In Cuff’s day the public defender’s office employed 65 attorneys who handled 1,200 cases each year on an annual budget of $950,000.
Today, said Eugene Moutes, assistant public defender, 505 attorneys and 28 administrators process 400,000 cases each year on a budget of about $40 million.
Over the years, Cuff’s desperate and destitute clients came to include Louise Peete, a mass murderer executed in 1947 and who always was respectfully referred to as “Mrs. Peete”; Albert W. Dyer, who killed three young girls in 1937; and a long-forgotten 18-year-old boy who nearly went to the gas chamber for confessing to a murder he thought his brother had committed.
From those famous and near-anonymous cases over many years Cuff said that he had found that “the wrong class of criminals (are) killed by the death penalty.”
A paid killer, he said, is familiar with the legal system and can create doubt about his guilt by lying and being evasive.
“But a fellow who confesses outright, removes all doubt about his own guilt . . . he’s a prime candidate for the gashouse.”
And the “gashouse” itself was not a deterrent, Cuff believed.
“I’ve probably handled as many condemned men as any attorney and I haven’t seen one yet who thought about the gas chamber before committing murder.”
Cuff is survived by a brother and three nieces and nephews.