Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato - Hollywood Homicide

Role of a Lifetime

The coroner's inquest into the death of Johnny Stompanato was the most anticipated television event ever. This was no Peyton Place; it was the real thing. Depending on how Lana played it, her daughter was either going to walk away a free woman or be charged with the death of her mother's boyfriend.

In the Hall of Records in downtown Beverly Hills the largest courtroom was reserved for the inquest. Of the 160 seats, 120 were reserved for the press. CBS and ABC announced that they were going to broadcast the inquest live and it would go out over radio, as well.

Interest in the case was overwhelming. Peyton Place, already a popular movie, saw its box office receipts jump by a third the week after Johnny's death. Coincidentally, one of Lana's key scenes in the melodrama was a courtroom interrogation, where she was questioned about crimes committed by her daughter.

The lines formed for the 40 public seats at 6 a.m. Shortly before 9:00, under a merciless sun made all the hotter by the television lights and flashbulbs, Lana, Stephan Crane and Geisler entered the building and quickly made their way to the courtroom.

Mickey Cohen was the first person called to testify, since he had identified Johnny's body at the morgue. Ever the showman, he caused a stir by refusing "to identify the body on the grounds I may be accused of this murder." He spent all of two minutes on the stand and left the building shortly thereafter.

The coroner introduced the autopsy report that showed how "a whole team of doctors" could not have saved Johnny's life. He had been stabbed once in the abdomen. The knife had sliced a kidney, struck a vertebra and twisted upward, puncturing his aorta. The medical examiner also announced that Johnny probably wouldn't have lived another 10 years because of his bad liver.

Then it was time for Lana.

Dressed in a gray silk suit, white gloves and hat, Lana was ready for her close-up. Her platinum hair was impeccable, not a strand out of place, and the best makeup artists had made her look as beautiful as she had ever been. Even though she had not slept at all the night before, Lana's high cheekbones glowed a healthy pale rose that only accented her crystal clear blue eyes, long doe lashes and pencil-thin eyebrows.

She sat down at the witness stand, removed her gloves and took a deep breath. For the next hour, Lana answered questions from the coroner, his deputy and Geisler while a 10-man, two-woman jury watched intently. She barely made eye contact with her questioners, instead staring at the back of the courtroom, where the wall met the ceiling. She broke down twice on the stand.

Lana Turner as she testifies (CORBIS)
Lana Turner as she testifies
(CORBIS)
Speaking quietly, she tried to explain why she stayed with a man who beat her, something she said in her autobiography that she didn't herself understand. Under Geisler's gentle questioning she recounted a moment-by-moment recap of the argument that led to the stabbing.

When she had finished, the coroner asked for a recess and the press immediately surrounded Lana. She was on the verge of fainting when Jerry Geisler moved her out of the center of the crowd. Reporters talked among themselves about the quality of Lana's performance.

 

 

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