Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life of Gladys Towles Root

Rats, Aspirin and the Baseball Bumpkin

Instances in which an attorneys clever questions cause a witness to recant a story were standard on Perry Mason but are extraordinarily rare in real life. Gladys Towles Root drew forth one such confession in her cross-examination of the child witness in The Candy Shakedown but also had such turnarounds from adults to her credit.

Root defended a gardener accused of raping a maid. They both worked in the same Beverly Hills mansion. Root feared that the jury would have special sympathy for the victim who had an artificial limb, a glass eye, and false teeth. During cross-examination of the woman, Roots voice was low and sultry. She brought up a water tumbler and asked, Before having intercourse you took out your teeth and dropped them into a glass such as this one didnt you?

Oh, yes, yes, the witness replied. I get excited and I didnt want to bite him.

The governments case collapsed like a house of cards.

Rice tells of how Root once defended an especially ghoulish rape case, that of a mortician who was also a necrophiliac. When he was discovered engaging in sexual intercourse with a womans dead body, he was charged with rape. After all, the corpse could not consent. Root argued, quite reasonably, that a dead body was no longer a human being and, thus, could not be raped. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

One case taken by Root ended up involving rats of the furry, four-footed variety. Roots client was charged with burglary and rape. He did not claim that the victim had consented to sex but that it was a case of mistaken identity. The victim said that she had been attacked in her bed at 1 a.m.

The defendants parents came into court to give him an alibi. He had been at home in his own bed at 1 a.m. on that night, they testified. How could they be sure? They claimed that they were awakened by a gnawing sound coming from underneath our sons bedroom door. They opened the door and saw him peacefully sleeping.

A rat in a cage
A rat in a cage
The prosecutor had the door to the young mans room brought into court. The DA tried to demonstrate how chisels could have made the markings on it. Root brought in rodent extermination specialists who identified them as marks of rat teeth. Her most effective witness, according to Defender of the Damned, was a rodent authority who had examined and recommended that a nearby house be condemned because the neighborhood was infested with a particularly destructive species of rat. That expert brought a caged specimen into the courtroom. The defendant was acquitted.

Easily the most pitiful character Root ever defended was a German woman who had come to the United States after marrying an American G.I. Rice aptly compares the prosecution in this most petty of larceny cases to the persecution of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugos classic Les Miserables.

Gretyl suffered from cancer when she was accused of shoplifting a bottle of aspirin from a store. According to Roots reconstruction of events, the cashier had made a mistake, forgetting to ring up the aspirin and charging Gretyl only for the box of Kleenex that was in her shopping bag.

The security guard apprehended Gretyl. Already ill, and now scared, the woman attempted to explain but her English was extremely poor. The excitement overcame her and she fainted during the interrogation.

When she came to, store authorities had a confession written up for her to sign. Gretyl signed.

At her trial, Root had Gretyl brought into the courtroom on a stretcher. The prosecutor objected, saying the defendants appearance on a stretcher was a trick to garner sympathy. Root produced doctors statements saying the woman was in fact too eaten away by cancer to be moved any other way.

Root read the confession that Gretyl had supposedly made and asked the security guard, Were those her very words?

Her very words, the guard replied.

The defendant was called to the witness stand. Prone on her stretcher, she was placed at the foot of it and sworn in. Her defense attorney began questioning her and the sick woman replied in a confused and confusing mixture of English and German. It was obvious that, unless she was an actress of the most extraordinary talent, she did not know English well enough to have made the confession.

Gretyl was acquitted. As Root frequently did, she took the case pro bono. A friend asked Root what she gained from defending such a client.

I got two important things, Root replied, justice, and rid of a splitting headache.

I understand the justice part of it, he said, but not the headache.

I took an aspirin from the evidence, Root said, her eyes twinkling.

For all Roots extraordinary intelligence and her ability to learn and digest information she needed for a case, there were great gaps in areas of her common knowledge. She had little time or interest for things outside work or family and it showed.

One evening, she went to a baseball game with her business manager, Jim Chown. The first batter hit a home run that sent a ball over the fence. Oh, dear, theyve lost the ball! Root said. Isnt that a shame? She thought the game must be over because the ball was gone.

Chown told her that the teams owner has hundreds of baseballs. Theyre going to continue playing.

Isnt it thoughtful of him to have all those extra baseballs around, she said.

 

 

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