Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Winnie Ruth Judd: 'The Trunk Murderess' In Perspective

To Be or Not to Be... Insane

Sheriff John R. McFadden was not content with the jury's verdict.

After the trial, he convinced Ruth to talk, to tell her side of the story, an opportunity she shamefully had not been given in court. . As head of the jail where she was brought when extradited back from Los Angeles, he had heard her initial self-defense story the night she was brought in -- a story so simple yet blown out of proportion and rebuilt in the meantime by others. Over the months as she sat in his cells, he and his wife often visited her, extending her kindness, listening to her informally describe that bloody evening of October 16, 1931. On his own, McFadden had investigated elements of the crime, and from the sidelines he watched those elements disregarded by the state; and his conscience bothered him. He felt that he needed to do something to save the accused from the burning stake. He made a last-ditch effort to, metaphorically, douse the fires the witch hunters had ignited.

In the shadow of the gallows, her execution less than two months away, Ruth was brought from her cell at the state prison and placed at a table among several witnesses whom McFadden had gathered to listen to her. His aim was to bring the transcript to the grand jury to force a fresh hearing. He believed he could do it. Around that table that evening of December 18, 1932, were, besides Ruth and Sheriff McFadden, Oliver Willson, Ruth's new lawyer; William Delbridge, the prison warden; Jeff Adams, one of McFadden's deputies; and a court stenographer.

And she talked...

*****

Whatever method McFadden used to convince the grand jury to listen Judd biographer Jana Bommersbach suggests he might have even threatened to arrest Jack Halloran himself -- he was successful. The efforts given by the convening grand jury proved to be not just another sideshow, but a body of jurors interested in American Justice. On the stand, Ruth related the entire story, the way it happened: the argument... the fight...the attack on her person...the gunshots...the deaths...Jack Halloran's admitted "operation" on Sammy Samuelson...her flight to Los Angeles, funded by Halloran.

Van Beck, one of the jurors, in recalling the case, remembers how the courtroom was "spellbound" as it heard, for the first recorded time, an altogether new version of the crime, new revelations spilling out of Winnie Ruth's mouth, revelations that not only made sense, but were traceable to a source of truth. "We didn't believe it was cold-blooded murder," he summarizes. "We felt positive she was unable to cut up the body. We were told it took a professional...Most people in the valley knew other people were involved in this crime, but there was nothing they could do -- the other s involved were prominent married men."

Then, two amazing things happened. Not only did the grand jury request that the Parole Board commute her death sentence to life imprisonment it was manslaughter, it said, not premeditated murder -- but it also attempted to lighten Ruth's term further by bringing in someone who could support her story. It indicted Jack Halloran. McFadden eagerly volunteered to deliver the subpoena personally.

The Parole Board chose not to make a decision concerning Ruth's death sentence until it heard the results of the Halloran hearing, although it postponed the execution to Friday, April 14. In mid-January, "Happy Jack" appeared in court to a tremendous popping of flashbulbs and scratch-scratch-scratch of scores of reporters' cartridge pens recording everything from his expression to the flashy necktie he wore.

On the stand, Ruth re-told the story of Jack's abetting, but this time she often lost herself to hysteria when she saw her former lover's sneers. His presence in the courtroom was lethal, and his intimidating manner not discouraged by the court. During testimony, the defendant would begin crying hysterically and, instead of answering questions, would rush off into a string of epithets. The horrors she was re-living were aggravated by the appearance of the victor who gazed at her in triumph.

The proceeding showed the system had little sympathy for Ruth. Again, after hearing her testimony, frenzied maybe but considerable nonetheless, it freed Jack of all involvement in the case. Judgment, said the court, was based on the fact that the woman's eccentric manner and personal involvement with her one-time lover spoke of a personal vendetta. No one ventured further investigation nor was Jack brought to the stand; his lawyers spoke for him; and on January 24, "Happy Jack" sauntered out never to be pulled back into this mess again.

Ruth returned to death row to die.

But, the final hearing had not been a total waste, for it spurred public sentiment like never before, especially in Arizona. The public simply believed she was innocent. McFadden had stirred the nation's and in particularly the state's conscience. Local newspapers began asking questions. The largest paper in the Arizona, the Republic, headlined McFadden's doubts.

The new warden of Arizona State Prison, A.G. Walker, intervened probably not without a "reassuring wink from the governor," says Bommersbach and pleaded for an insanity hearing for his prisoner. It would mean, most likely, a life-term stay at an institution, but it was better than watching the lady being executed.

"There is good reason to believe that (Judd) has become insane after the delivery...to the superintendent of the Arizona State Prison," Walker wrote to the parole commission. If the McFadden/Walker faction was suddenly pulling strings, at least they had learned that to beat a game one had to play as rough as the opponent. As if to get this business over with Arizona's reputation and its judicial system were on the firing line the state agreed to a sanity hearing, which convened almost overnight in Pinal County Courthouse, near the prison. It opened on April 14, the day Ruth would have died. About the hour she had been destined to enter the execution chamber she instead shuffled into the county's courthouse.

This time, Ruth's newly appointed defense team maneuvered well; one of them was a young, brilliant attorney named Tom Fullbright, who would go on to become one of the state's most honored and honest -- jurists.

What happened over the next ten days was, speculatively, much of a staged show, rehearsed by the "good guys." Their efforts may have been effected, on the surface, for the benefit the governor, but they were most assuredly done for the woman, Winnie Ruth Judd.

"(The) sanity hearing began. Winnie laughed uproariously, clapped her hands and, at one time, rose up and said of the jury, 'They're all gangsters!'" Jay Robert Nash explains the theatricals in Bloodletters and Badmen. "Another time, she said loudly to her husband, William C. Judd: 'Let me throw myself out that window!'

Moving to the asylum with her pet cat (Courtesy the Relfe family)
Moving to the asylum with
her pet cat
(Courtesy the Relfe family)

"In desperation, Winnie's mother (took) the stand to state that insanity ran through her family like a wild river. Then, Winnie's father...rattled off numerous...loonies in his family tree."

Eventually, the defendant was pulled from the courtroom, but, as Nash replies, "Winnie won". On April 24, 1933, Ruth returned to Phoenix. Her new home was located at the corner of Van Buren and 24th streets: the whitewashed, stucco edifice locals called "the looney house" but, to be correct, it was the Arizona State Mental Hospital.

 

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