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Notorious Cases for a ‘No-Nonsense’ Judge

Times Staff Writer

In 30 years on the bench, Judge Charles W. Fricke reputedly sentenced more criminals to death than any of his colleagues and presided over some of the flashiest cases in Los Angeles: Theater magnate Alexander Pantages’ first rape trial in 1929. The 1948 rape and kidnapping trial of “Red Light Bandit” Caryl Chessman. And the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial of 22 Latinos, which sullied his reputation, perhaps unfairly.

Fricke was a leading authority on criminal law, a gruff, hard-nosed jurist with a secret passion for orchids, magic tricks and chocolate cake. He also lectured at Loyola Law School, and his textbooks are still read today.

“He was a no-nonsense judge who followed procedure and was known for his fairness,” said a Fricke admirer, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcon.

“He was assigned more capital cases by presiding judges than any of his contemporaries, because of his skill in trying complex cases and his knowledge on criminal law, evidence and procedure,” Alarcon said in a recent interview.

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Fricke left a mark on the law and on Alarcon, 81, who became the first Mexican American on the 9th Circuit.

Alarcon began his career as a young prosecutor more than half a century ago, often assigned to Fricke’s courtroom.

“He had a good sense of humor but never showed it on the bench,” Alarcon said. “The only time I saw his humor was when a public defender asked me to go into Fricke’s chambers with him. His client had been convicted of a drunken brawl and assault, and Fricke [had previously] sentenced him to five years’ probation” in another case.

“I have a client who thinks I can talk you into excusing his behavior simply because his name is Callahan,” Alarcon quoted the lawyer as saying. “He violated probation by getting drunk on St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t know what to say to my client.”

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“Why don’t you tell him I’m going to modify his probation terms so that he can drink only on March 17,” Fricke replied, according to Alarcon. If Callahan got drunk any other day, he’d find himself in the slammer.

Born in Wisconsin, Fricke moved west in 1915, at age 33.

As a deputy district attorney, he successfully prosecuted Clara Phillips, whose ferocious claw-hammer attack on her husband’s lover in 1922 earned her the sobriquet Tiger Woman.

In 1927, Gov. Clement C. Young appointed Fricke to the Superior Court.

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Two years later, the judge presided over the great American sex trial of the era: Theater magnate Pantages was accused of raping a 17-year-old dancer. Pantages’ attorney, Jerry Giesler, tried to argue that the victim was not the innocent she pretended to be. Fricke refused to allow it, ruling that the victim’s character didn’t matter, because Pantages could be guilty of statutory rape based solely on her age. Pantages was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

He appealed and won a new trial, with the state Supreme Court agreeing that the victim’s character was pertinent. Pantages was acquitted in a second trial, presided over by a different judge. But he spent more than a year in jail during his appeal, because Fricke refused to grant bail.

Fricke didn’t shy away from controversy. In 1948, he imposed the death penalty on rapistkidnapper Caryl Whittier Chessman, even though Chessman had not killed anyone. Chessman was executed in 1960 after spending 12 years fighting for a new trial.

Juvenile courts and the California Youth Authority rankled Fricke, who thought they coddled lawbreakers. He launched his own campaign, sending young recidivists to state prison rather than forestry camp.

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At a 1954 hearing, The Times reported, Fricke used 19-year-old Joseph W. Baptiste as an example. Baptiste had pleaded guilty to two counts of burglary, expecting leniency.

But as Fricke summarized the case, Baptiste must have realized his mistake: “Baptiste’s criminal career started in 1947, at age 12, with felony drunk driving and sex offense. He was permitted to go home, but within a month committed a theft and shortly after that burglarized a home and attempted to strangle a woman. But each time he was sent home.”

Baptiste’s attorney interrupted with a plea that “I hope we can save him from ... “

“He’s been saved too often; that’s just the trouble,” Fricke replied. Pounding his gavel, he sentenced Baptiste to two years in prison.

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Fricke also presided over the 1957 trial of L. Ewing Scott, the first person in the nation convicted of murder even though the body was never found. The victim was Scott’s wealthy wife.

Reputedly, Scott’s defense attorney almost swayed the jury by saying Scott’s wife “might walk through this courtroom door at any minute.” Jurors supposedly glanced at the door, revealing doubt that she was dead.

But Alarcon, who co-prosecuted Scott, debunks that.

“It’s pure urban legend,” he said. “A colleague of mine, Aaron Stovitz, spread the rumor, using a B-movie that had invented that [theory]. He only did it to tease us and had no idea it would go down [in history] like it did.”

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But Fricke’s most famous case was the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon trial, in which 22 Mexican American youths were charged with the gang killing of Jose Diaz. During the five-month trial in a courtroom overflowing with defendants and lawyers, Fricke’s patience wore thin. He found fault with defense attorneys and became exasperated as defendants fired spitballs. Because of the cramped conditions, his defenders say, he separated the defendants from their attorneys.

In January 1943, a dozen defendants were convicted of first- and second-degree murder. Five others were convicted of assault; the other five were acquitted.

Some historians regard the trial as a product of overzealous prosecutors and a biased judge. The press described the defendants as “zoot suit gangsters,” referring to their style of dress.

“Public opinion was clearly on the side of the prosecution,” historian Manuel G. Gonzales wrote in his 2000 book “Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States.” “Nor did it help that the judge ... had concluded that the gang was guilty beforehand and prejudiced the case in a number of ways.”

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“This case wasn’t about justice,” social activist Alice McGrath said in a 1997 Times article. “It was about punishing these kids for being Mexican and for dressing the way they did. It was racist. There’s no doubt about that.”

She helped win the appeal in 1944 by organizing and raising funds for the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee.

The Court of Appeal rebuked Fricke for separating defendants from their lawyers and for losing his temper with one attorney. The case was never retried.

But Alarcon, who read the trial record, disagrees with Fricke’s critics:

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“The case was reversed based largely on judicial error in ruling on the admission of evidence,” he said. “No claim was made during trial or before the Court of Appeal that Fricke was biased against Mexicans or that he concluded before trial that the defendants were guilty. When he split up the courtroom, it was considered a practical solution to the largest mass trial in California history.”

Alarcon didn’t see the trial; he was still in high school. But he can’t believe Fricke was biased.

“If Fricke ever criticized lawyers, litigants or witnesses who belonged to a minority group, it may well have been because of their violation of a court order or their improper courtroom demeanor, rather than their racial heritage,” Alarcon said.

The defendants’ story was immortalized -- with some fictional embellishments -- in Luis Valdez’s 1978 play “Zoot Suit” and the 1981 film. In 2002, filmmaker Joseph Tovares wrote and produced a documentary, “Zoot Suit Riots.”

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Fricke had a life outside the courtroom too. Alarcon remembers the judge’s wife arriving in court every Wednesday afternoon, catching the end of his trial, then taking his arm and going out to dinner.

And every year, on Fricke’s birthday, Judge Mildred L. Lillie would bake him chocolate cake.

Fricke died in 1958. A Times article after his death said he had sentenced more killers to death than any other jurist in the history of California jurisprudence.

“He left instructions with his daughter to ask me to edit his popular lawbooks,” said Alarcon, who was flabbergasted. “He had never mentioned this desire to me during his lifetime.”

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