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The Whiteboard Jungle: Classic film with local ties still stokes death-row debate today

Do you ever read or see something about the past, then find yourself going down the rabbit hole researching more about it?

That happened to me recently when I watched the 1958 film “I Want to Live!,” starring Susan Hayward, who won an Oscar for portraying Barbara Graham, the third of only four women ever executed in California.

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Graham was found guilty of murdering Burbank widow Mabel Monahan on March 9, 1953, a 66-year-old crime still prominently highlighted on the Burbank police website.

The plot began when Graham and her three male accomplices targeted Monahan who they thought had $100,000 in cash from her former son-in-law with ties to Las Vegas gambling.

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Pretending she needed to use the phone, Graham gained entrance to Monahan’s house, with the men right behind her. The group ransacked Monahan’s house, beating her to death with a revolver, finishing her off with a pillow case, only to discover no money anywhere. Graham was accused of pistol-whipping her.

Two days later, her body was discovered by her gardener, with her dog still outside in the backyard.

Graham pleaded not guilty, but she did not have an alibi.

While incarcerated and awaiting her trial, a fellow inmate convinced Graham to pay money to a friend from the outside who would lie under oath that he was with her the night of the crime.

When meeting with the paid liar, he asked her if she was really at the scene of the crime and she said, “yes.”

During the trial, Graham was surprised to see that man arrive in court, not to testify on her behalf, but as a witness for the prosecution. You see, he was an undercover Burbank cop who wore a wire.

Once the recording was played in court, her fate was sealed: guilty, to be put to death in the gas chamber.

The 1958 film was based on articles written by Pulitzer Prize-winning San Francisco Examiner reporter Ed Montgomery, who established a correspondence with Graham. While the articles served as anti-death penalty arguments, actress Hayward concluded that Graham did commit the crime based on her research. It appears that the convict had a history of using her fists as weapons against others.

One interesting side note: Montgomery was close friends with fellow Examiner writer Eddie Muller whose son, also named Eddie, has made a career of preserving and showcasing film noir movies such as “I Want to Live!” on TCM and in noir film festivals.

Since Graham’s death in 1955, only one other woman has been executed — in 1962.

Just last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom put a moratorium on California’s death penalty.

Some people have cried foul that Newsom would oppose the will of the people who voted against repealing the death penalty as recently as 2016.

I’m not sure what all the fuss is about since the last person executed in California was 13 years ago — in 2006. San Quentin’s Death Row houses 737 inmates waiting to die. These people are more likely to expire from natural causes.

Since 1992, only 13 death-row inmates in the state have been executed, while 62,315 people have been murdered. Clearly, the rationale that the death penalty acts as a deterrent is not working out.

In discussing the negatives of paying for housing death-row inmates, L.A. Times columnist George Skelton wrote that it costs “at least $5 billion more over the years than what life sentences would have cost;” plus, the prisoners receive “free legal service, generous yard time and don’t have to work.”

Who says crime doesn’t pay — with the taxpayers footing the bill.

Brian Crosby is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District and the author of “Smart Kids, Bad Schools” and “The $100,000 Teacher.” He can be reached at www.brian-crosby.com.

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