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When the People Cry for Blood

AL MARTINEZ,

J. Miller Leavy sleeps peacefully at night.

He eats well, has a girlfriend and, for a man of 85, is in reasonably good health.

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“I’ve got all my buttons,” J. Miller Leavy likes to say with the puckish humor of a pit bull.

That’s how he’s described by those who’ve known him over the years. A pit bull. Tougher than hell in court and absolutely determined not to let go.

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But, they add, J. Miller Leavy was an honest voice for the people and believed beyond any doubt that what he was doing was right and fair.

That includes sending 12 men and a woman to the gas chamber.

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“My conscience is clear,” he said the other day, in a tone that forbade debate.

J. Miller Leavy is a slow-talking man. Time stays the speed of rage with blind equanimity. But there is still iron in his voice.

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“The people I prosecuted were guilty and deserved to die.”

It was not said in a boasting manner.

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“I don’t brag about those things. The dead shouldn’t be counted. The figure (12 men and a woman) was made public by someone else, not me.”

Leavy was with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office for 41 years, the last 10 as its chief prosecutor. He retired in 1974 with a national reputation as a doorman to hell.

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He sent people like Barbara Graham to the gas chamber and L. Ewing Scott and child-killer Stephen Nash.

“Their deaths,” J. Miller Leavy said, “were a lot more merciful than the deaths they caused.”

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Then, after a moment of reflective silence: “That’s for sure.”

I write today of death and the public weal because the people have been crying for blood, almost as much as they cheered for their favorite movie to win an Oscar.

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We are an odd contradiction of glitz and violence in L.A., and the prospect of a last walk for Robert Alton Harris has renewed our taste for vengeance. We’ve had enough. Off with his head.

This was never clearer than at a party I attended the night the Academy Awards were announced.

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Even as the women of film flashed their decolletage across a giant television screen and the men thanked their mothers for bearing them into life as winners, we debated the fate of Robert Alton Harris.

It was not a debate I had anticipated. The most compassionate of my acquaintances had turned toward the way of the executioner, proclaiming with righteous finality that the man had killed, and the man had to pay.

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The people are never at their best demanding blood. They never have been. But for all those we’ve gassed and for all those we’ve hanged and burned and boiled in oil, the murder rate grows, the violence continues.

Maybe we ought to rethink the whole thing, I said at the party, as we watched Jane Fonda do her stuff in a tight gown hot enough to melt a media mogul.

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I wasn’t a tiger in debate. I don’t like murder. I’ve seen too damned much of it in three decades as a reporter. But I don’t like legal executions either. I’ve seen them too.

I stood close to the window of the gas chamber and watched Barbara Graham die. She gasped and strangled and strained against the straps that bound her. Saliva sprayed the air like a fine mist. Foam bubbled at her mouth.

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“Mabel Monahan died hard too,” a cop next to me said.

Mabel Monahan was the elderly woman Graham killed. Later in the day I watched her cohorts die. Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins. Then I got drunk.

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I lack the capacity to distance myself from death. I can’t cheer with the people. No more blood.

“You take a guy like Nash,” J. Miller Leavy was saying. “He disemboweled a 10-year-old boy and then stabbed him 17 times. Later he said he enjoyed it. I have no qualms about seeing people like that executed.”

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J. Miller Leavy was not a cruel man. He still isn’t. He cried when his wife died and his tone softens when he remembers her.

During his days with the D.A.'s office, he wouldn’t prosecute those he felt were innocent, and wouldn’t ask for the death penalty unless he was sure the crime deserved it.

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“I didn’t prosecute to deter,” he said. “I prosecuted to punish.”

A pause, then: “Barbara Graham tied Mabel Monahan’s hands behind her back, pistol whipped her and left her to die. Sending her to the gas chamber didn’t bother me at all.”

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J. Miller Leavy thought about that. “No one executed has ever returned to commit the same crime,” he said.

“Driving Miss Daisy” won for best picture. Robert Harris won a stay. But then, I guess you already knew that.

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