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Bernard J. Lotka and Tillie Michalski Trials: 1943

Both Parents Face Death Penalty

Lotka and Michalski were both indicted for first-degree (premeditated) murder. If convicted, they faced the gas chamber. (The state's theory was that Michalski had previous knowledge of Lotka's intentions and was, therefore, an accessory to the crime.) Given court-appointed lawyers, one of Lotka's counselors was George Codding, a former district attorney. Michalski's lawyer was Otto Frohnmayer, a prominent figure in Jackson County's legal community.

The defendants were tried separately. (Shortly after his arrest, the local authorities were told by the military that Lotka was "definitely out of the army" and, thus, subject to the civilian courts.)

Initially, Lotka pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Under Oregon's law in 1943, this would have required his lawyers to prove that he was insane beyond a reasonable doubt. However, after specialists examined by him, the plea was substituted with a regular "not guilty" plea.

Lotka's attorneys did everything they could. They attempted to exclude the confessions from evidence on the grounds that Lotka had not been fully advised of his right to a lawyer before he made and signed the statements. They also argued that the confessions were improperly obtained by police promises to keep the scandal "localized" so the defendant's relatives in Cleveland would not find out. (When asked if he wanted any members of his family present at the trial, Lotka's response was that "I don't want to see any of them, and I would like it better if they knew nothing about it.") Thirteen witnesses from Camp White testified to the sergeant's excellent reputation and character. It was to no avail. As Lotka's other lawyer, 0. H. Bengston, said to the jury:

I am absolutely convinced this soldier is innocent and is trying to protect someone else, even though by so doing he may lose his own life. We have had no assistance from the defendant. He refused to take the stand in his own behalf to refute [the] state's evidence against him. He has sat resolutely by as if trying to protect somebody.

The trial lasted four days. After only three and a half hours, the jury found Lotka guilty on Thursday, May 20, of second-degree murder. (There were later rumors that some jurors refused to convict Lotka of first-degree murder because they did not want to apply the death penalty to a soldier. A conviction of second-degree murder, which required the jury to find the defendant guilty of acting deliberately in an unpremeditated manner, carried a mandatory life sentence.)

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Bernard J. Lotka and Tillie Michalski Trials: 1943 - Child Of A Secret Relationship, Baby's Body Found At Motor Court, Both Parents Face Death Penalty