Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life of Gladys Towles Root

Killings, Cars, and Taxes

Gladys Towles Root defended many clients accused of murder as was her very first and never lost one to the death penalty. This is remarkable when one remembers that during much of the era in which she practiced law, Californias gas chamber was quite busy as were the mechanisms of execution employed by many other states.

In 1960, Root took the case of Robert Wetzel, a hard-drinking, rough-living man employed as a hospital painter who was charged with first-degree murder. He already had a conviction for assault and battery with intent to commit rape. Wetzel was alleged to have murdered Doris McCarthy in a hotel room that they had both been identified as registering in under an assumed name. The coroner found that McCarthys body had been badly battered and that she had died of strangulation. Wetzel was of little help to his attorney because he couldnt remember much of what had happened after meeting McCarthy and hooking up with her. He had blacked out from being drunk.

The case was regarded as a slam-dunk for the prosecution.

However, Root argued in her summation that the victim may have either grabbed her own throat while having spasms in her throat and thereby exerted the pressure referred to as the cause of death or that while the defendant were in the throes of making love . . . accidental pressure was exerted which caused the hemorrhages as found.

This defense may sound far-fetched to the point of being bizarre but Root had well prepared the foundations for it. During her lengthy and careful cross-examination of a Los Angeles County deputy coroner, she elicited the information that he did not believe that anything had been tied around McCarthys neck and that no fingerprints were found on her neck. The coroner also testified that there were no internal fractures of the neck as there would be in at least 80 percent of strangulations. Root also established the McCarthy was an alcoholic and that alcoholics are far more susceptible than other people to asphyxia by any kind of trauma to the neck including that of being kissed or hugged about the neck, in voluntary lovemaking. Root called those who had been in rooms adjacent to the one in which McCarthy and Wetzel to the stand. They testified that they had heard no unusual commotion or screams from the room as would be expected if a violent struggle had taken place.

Her client was convicted only of manslaughter, carrying a one to 10 year sentence.

Another hopeless case Root took was that of Allan Adron. A 6-foot-tall, 190 pound, 52-year-old man with an intense gaze, a ramrod straight posture and a history of mental illness, Adron had shot millionaire Jerome Ferraci to death. Then Ferracis pretty and shapely wife Betty had hacked the corpse to pieces with a meat cleaver. Also charged in the crime was Charles Fauci, a hood believed by police to have supplied the murder weapon.

Adron had worked for the Ferraris as a Jack-of-all-trades, doing odd jobs around the house and being a caregiver to their eight-year-old son. According to the story Adron told Root, Betty Ferraci had enlisted him to help her. Jerome was an extremely abusive husband and father, she confided and he was planning to kill her.

In the bench trial Root argued to the judge that Adron had been temporarily insane at the time of the killing, driven mad by Betty Ferracis fear so that he had to save her. Observers nicknamed him the Robot Man. During her clients testimony, Root had the Ferracis grandfather clock wheeled into the courtroom to illustrate how its loud, repetitive ticking helped reinforce Bettys plea of Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! by putting Adron in a hypnotic trance.

He was acquitted.

No less than nine witnesses saw John Wesley Riley chase his wife to a fence, and then shoot her dead. The terrified woman had fallen to her knees, begging for her life before her estranged husband killed her. If ever there was a death penalty case, many felt, this was it. Adding to the chances of Riley, in 1961, receiving the death sentence the prosecution was asking for was the fact that he was black (as were the other principals in the case).

Riley pled not guilty by reason of insanity and Root contended in court that he was under a voodoo spell. Riley testified that he had been told his wife and her boyfriend had put a hex on him and, in his own desperation to undo the spell, he had consulted voodoo priests and priestesses. In her summation, Root argued that he was the victim of a compelling belief in the supernatural powers of the evil eye, the hex, and the occult and sinister powers of voodooism.

Her client was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment rather than execution.

After at least one criminal case, Root found herself hoisted upon her own petard. As Cecilia Rasmussen wrote in an article entitled Lady in Purple Took L.A. Legal World by Storm, Root convinced a jury that her client had an irresistible impulse to steal Cadillacs, like an alcoholic craving a drink. Thus, he could not be held legally responsible and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

He was arrested for stealing another Cadillac just a few days later. The car he had stolen was hers! She asked him why he had taken it. Compulsion, he replied. Isnt that the word you used at my trial?

Although the car was hers, it is quite possible she never actually drove it. When biographer Cy Rice described her as an extremely competent driver, he must have been referring to her ability to maneuver the vehicle rather than overall competence. She tended to completely ignore the speed limit and soon amassed a massive number of tickets. The judge before whom she appeared for her traffic violations asked her not to drive again and, according to Rice, the lawyer who could by then easily afford a chauffeur, complied.

Root tangled with the Internal Revenue Service, beginning in the 1970s. The IRS contended that she owed more than $230,000 in back taxes when interest and penalties were included. She fought the judgment and, uncharacteristically, she lost in the federal appeals court in 1977. She attempted to appeal to the United States Supreme Court but the highest court in the land refused to hear the case.

These tax problems may be the reason she appeared to suffer financial reversals toward the end of her life. She sold one of her mansions and took up residence in a more modest home. The office out of which she operated during her heyday was destroyed in a fire. She opened a new office decorated like the last one in her trademark gold and purple in a rundown building.

Gladys Towles Root died in her element. On December 21, 1982, she was in a Pomona courtroom wearing a vibrant gold dress and defending two brothers accused of rape. She suddenly appeared faint and told Judge Peter Smith, give me a few moments . . . Im having trouble breathing. Then she collapsed. She died two hours later in a Pomona hospital.

 

 

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