Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Bonnie Garland

'Out of Character'

In the weeks following Herrin's arrest for the murder of Bonnie Garland, a curious trend began to develop. From the first moments after his appearance at St. Mary's Church in Coxsackie, the prevailing tone was a sense of forgiveness for Herrin. "I saw that he was a very high caliber young man who had done something very much out of character," the priest told a reporter. "Barring this situation, he (Herrin) would be described as the all-American person" (Miller 1).  Father Tartaglia later wrote a letter to a friend in which he stated that although his time with Herrin only amounted to less than 30 minutes, he managed to gather "a very positive and beautiful impression" of the young man and he regretted that this tragic affair could have happened to such a "virtuous and good person" as Richard (Gaylin 120).

In Connecticut, Sister Ramona Pena, an assistant Catholic chaplain at Yale University, read a newspaper story which described the killing in the bucolic village of Scarsdale that involved two Yale students. She was appalled, but at the same time, felt enormous sympathy for Richard Herrin.  Within one week, Sister Ramona had turned her compassion into tangible results. She organized a campaign of support for Herrin that included her friends, former classmates and other alumni of Yale who formulated a strategy for the legal battle ahead. They hired a private attorney from New York City, a former prosecutor named Jack Litman, who agreed to handle the case for a reduced fee. Litman was a Harvard Law School graduate, a brilliant attorney who was well known in New York City and feared in the courtroom. He was once the Deputy Chief of the Homicide Bureau in Manhattan and since he left public service, he had never lost a homicide case as a defense attorney.

Attorney Jack Litman
Attorney Jack Litman

Litman's first task was to get Herrin out of jail. Since he was from the Los Angeles barrio, his family had little means to provide bail or secure a bond. Sister Ramona and her network of friends went to work. They sent out letters to friends and associates to plead for money to help Herrin. The letter began, "The terrible events described in the enclosed articles are most likely not news to you. While we are left only to mourn Bonnie's tragic death, it is important that having lost one life, we do what we can to salvage another." Because Yale alumni consist of many successful people, such as doctors, lawyers and businessmen, Richard Herrin soon had an abundance of supportive letters from very impressive sources. "The letters made it sound as if Herrin was a commendable candidate for high office, not someone seeking to be let out on bail," writes Meyer in The Yale Murder. "It presumed that Herrin was not so much the willful perpetrator of the crime as he was its fellow victim."

Westchester County Jail
Westchester County Jail

But the organized appeal worked. On August 11, 1977, just 31 days after the murder, Herrin was released on $50,000 bail. "It was the most impressive bail application I have ever seen," said Judge John Walsh in Westchester County Court.  The judge commented that he was "particularly moved by a letter from Brother Thomas Gavin, the director of the Christian Brothers Community in Albany, who offered to provide housing for Mr. Herrin if he were released on bail." Brother Thomas had told the judge that the academy was ready to take him in because, "there is a rhythm to our lives that we see as a help to Richard at this time in his life". 

Book cover: The Yale Murder
Book cover: The Yale Murder

Paul Garland couldn't believe the unexpected outpouring of support for his daughter's confessed murderer. He wrote a scathing letter to Yale in which he ended all his relationships with the college. "My expectation from the Yale community was that it could cry out against this brutal act and demand that justice be done," he wrote. "What has happened, incredibly, is largely to the contrary.  Yale people, past and present, have rushed to the aid and support of the killer, in an organized and systematic manner, and have succeeded in clothing him with the aura of Yale sponsorship and support" (Meyer 180).

 

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