The White Flame Of Passion
Los Angeles airline executive Paul Wright adored his sexy wife and lavished every cent on her. But even his generous salary wasn't enough to keep 33-year-old Evelyn in the pampered style that she preferred. Because Evelyn was a lady with very expensive tastes. They had married in 1932, when Evelyn, already divorced, had been the society editor for the Detroit Times. Three years later they moved to Glendale, California, and it was the strain of maintaining the kind of California lifestyle that Evelyn craved that really took its toll on Wright's bankroll. He plunged deeper and deeper into debt. But nothing could shake his infatuation with Evelyn.
Until the early hours of November 9, 1937.
The evening had started well enough, with Paul and best friend John Kimmel, 34, drinking together at the Hollywood Athletic Club. At 2 a.m. Paul phoned Evelyn to say that he was bringing Kimmel home for a nightcap. When they arrived, Evelyn was waiting at the front door and joined them in the living room. They sat around and talked for another hour. At approximately 3 a.m., Paul yawned that he was tired and going to bed. John wished him good-night and said that he would be leaving as soon as he finished his drink.
According to Wright, he fell into a deep slumber. An hour later he was awoken by the sound of someone playing the living room piano. Only then did he realize that Evelyn had still not come to bed. Groggily, he stumbled into the hallway and along to the living room. He paused in the doorway. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he could see Kimmel sat at the piano, leaning back and looking downward. Evelyn was nowhere to be seen. Wright glanced around the corner at the davenport. Empty. He wondered if his wife might be in the kitchen. All the while, Kimmel kept striking the piano key with one finger, although, judging from his moans of delight, his attention was clearly elsewhere.
Sex At The Piano
Suddenly, Evelyn's head appeared from beneath the piano keyboard. She slithered up to embrace Kimmel and joined him on the piano bench. Watching from the doorway, Wright froze, unable to believe that Evelyn, although still fully dressed, was cheating on him. In a daze he ran back to the bedroom, snatched a Luger automatic pistol from a nightstand drawer, and then advanced on the living room, spraying bullets with every step.
Evelyn and Kimmel slumped to the floor in a hail of lead, with Kimmel's left foot resting grotesquely on the piano keyboard, while his right leg was draped over his lover's body. As the smoke cleared, and with it his befuddled senses, Wright began to realize the enormity of what he had done. Trance-like, he phoned the police. Wright was pacing the sidewalk when the police arrived. "My, God, I'm a murderer," he cried. "I've killed my wife and best friend." In fact, the officers found both victims still alive, though barely (neither would survive the day), while Kimmel's unfastened fly gave some indication as to what might have provoked this tragedy. Wright then asked if he could phone his father in Milwaukee. With officers monitoring every word, Wright said, "Hello, father, there's been a terrible tragedy in my home. I've shot Evelyn. I caught her cheating. It's just like I told you it would be."
This conversation was highly significant, a strong indication to the investigating detectives that Wright was aware of his wife's infidelity and that this shooting, far from being a spontaneous act of passion, was actually a planned execution. They reasoned that Wright, jealous of his wife's adulterous relationship with Kimmel, had lured the couple into a compromising situation, and had then lurked outside the living room, gun in hand, waiting to catch them in flagrante delicto. Only then did he start firing. As a theory, it fitted the facts of the situation well enough for the state to file first-degree murder charges against Wright.
Wright might have been strapped for cash, but he scraped together enough to hire Jerry Giesler to defend him. In Los Angeles, Giesler was known as 'the attorney to the stars', the first lawyer that Hollywood movie studios called whenever one of their big names got in some kind of jam. Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, Charlie Chaplin, and Shelley Winters were just a few of the movie stars who had good reason to thank Giesler's prodigious legal skills. And he was just as good in murder cases. In more than seventy capital cases he never once lost a client to the gallows or gas chamber. And he wasn't about to start now.
He carefully mapped out his strategy. First and foremost, he needed to negate Wright's voluntary confession, made just after the killings and without any hint of coercion. The only way to achieve that, he thought, was through a plea of 'temporary insanity,' arguing that if Wright was insane at the time he pulled the trigger, legally he was not responsible for his actions; and if he were now sane, he could not be confined to a mental hospital. There was plenty of precedent under California law for such a plea, but Giesler intended adding his own special kind of spin to this traditional defense ploy. And it was a real zinger!
For now, though, Giesler just needed to set the scene. When the trial began, her relied on Wright's own words, used to describe his emotions at the moment when he saw his wife and best friend cheating on the piano bench – "A white flame exploded in my brain." Giesler told the jury that what Wright saw when he entered the room was so traumatic, so devastating, that every vestige of reason deserted him.
Earlier, after studying police photographs of the death-scene and conducting a series of experiments with his own wife on the actual bench and piano, Giesler had hatched a plausible scenario of how events might have unfolded on the fateful night. He just needed to show the jury. To this end, he had the piano and its bench wheeled into court, and with himself in the role of the dead man, Giesler demonstrated how Kimmel had been sat with his left foot on the piano, while Evelyn, still fully-dressed, had her face buried in his lap. Then she had reached and hugged her lover, unaware that Wright was watching every move. By the time Wright returned with the gun, the lovers were locked in a full embrace. The first fusillade hit Evelyn in the back and threw her onto the floor. Kimmel, struck from the front by the second burst, toppled onto his dying lover. As he reenacted the scene, Giesler, a master showman, actually fell from the bench and continued addressing the jury from the floor.
It was great theater, but was that really how things had unfolded? The prosecution just scoffed and called Wright's elderly neighbor, Litane McCluskey, to rebut Giesler's theory. Her testimony directly contradicted Wright's insistence that he had fired two shots from the doorway and the rest some seconds later from close range. She described hearing five shots fired "in rapid succession without a break," which dovetailed neatly with the state's claim that Wright had fired all the shots at close-range, quite coolly, and in rapid succession just the way he had planned it.
The Prosecutor Blunders
But then assistant district Ernest A. Roll committed the cardinal courtroom sin – he asked one question too many. Instead of just settling for the witness's answer, he handed Miss McCluskey a pencil, with a request that she tap out the sequence of shots. After some considerable reflection, the witness began tapping. The first two raps came in quick succession. But there then followed a distinct pause, before three more raps. Roll looked as if he'd been poleaxed. Instantly, the mood in court altered. Those few seconds allowed Giesler to demolish the state's argument that Wright had fired all the shots in rapid succession, and led to Wright being convicted of manslaughter rather than first-degree murder.
It was during the penalty deliberations that Giesler dropped his legal bombshell. He reminded the judge that during the first phase of the trial, where the defendant had enjoyed the presumption of innocence and the state bore the proof of murder, custom dictated that the prosecution make the first opening argument and the last closing argument. Now, with the situation being reversed – the defendant having to prove his own insanity – Giesler argued that such a burden entitled him to the same privilege of first opening and last closing arguments.
Such an audacious motion – without precedent – brought howls of dissent from the prosecution. This was just another of Giesler's showboating ploys, they roared. Hastily, the judge sought to defuse the volatile situation by inviting both sides into his chambers, where they presented arguments. After a lengthy deliberation, he decided in Giesler's favor.
Having the last word in such an emotive trial was a huge advantage to a spin-meister like Jerry Giesler. Again and again he hammered away on the theme of the innocent husband, betrayed in his own living room, and the searing "white flame" that had temporarily destroyed his powers of reason and logic. It worked. After two days of deliberation, the jury found Wright not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity; and when, after a psychiatric examination established that he was no longer insane, Paul Wright was set free. On February 27, 1938, he walked out of the county jail, into the pelting rain and a crowd of waiting reporters. He told them, "If it is humanly possible, the public never will hear of Paul Wright again." They never did.
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