Gertrude Morris Trial: 1952
Extraordinary Defense Opening
Then came Ehrlich's opening address, surely one of the most remarkable ever made by defense counsel. It amounted to a wholesale impeachment of his client's credibility, as he warned the jury that Morris would shape her story in such a way as to leave them no alternative but to send her to the gas chamber. Twice, in custody, she had attempted suicide, he said; now she was asking the state to finish the job. And contrary to what Morris had told the police, Ehrlich noted, she did suspect her husband of infidelity, in particular that he had been "intimate with his secretary."
Throughout all this Morris stared blankly into a handkerchief, emotionless. Then Ehrlich called her to the stand. A plain, plump woman, she sat with a wrinkled coat draped across her shoulders, answering questions wearily. After a few minutes she leaned towards the judge and murmured, "I want to plead guilty to first-degree murder."
Judge Harry J. Neubarth blinked. "What?" When she repeated her request the judge said, "You just tell the story. We'll let the jury decide what the verdict should be."
As Ehrlich fought to bring out details of the argument, Morris began to drift. Striding towards her, finger extended, Ehrlich shouted, "I've told you time and time again that I want you to tell how it happened, and not try to build it up so you'll be executed."
Straight away, Elkington was on his feet, objecting that counsel was leading the witness. In what was always a rowdy trial, the crowded gallery urged the rivals on. Amidst the bedlam, Ehrlich bellowed, "It is my moral duty to protect this woman. This woman is trying to destroy herself!"
Ehrlich explained that Morris's problems stemmed from an overnight train journey she and her husband had taken in 1941. Using a diagram that showed sleeping arrangements on the Pullman car, Ehrlich told how Gertrude had surprised Milton wrestling with the door to the adjoining compartment door. Behind that door was Rose Goolo, Milton's attractive, young secretary. Although Milton insisted that Gertrude had completely misinterpreted his actions, she was not convinced. Ten years on, when questioned by Ehrlich about this incident, Morris muttered, "I still think there was something wrong there."
On cross-examination she lapsed back into a dull torpor, repeatedly answering, "Yes," to every question posed by Elkington. "That's right, keep it up," jeered Ehrlich, "She'll say 'yes' to anything you ask her." When Ehrlich complained that "no man, no lawyer living ever heard anything like this," Morris called him over. "Can't we plead guilty to murder now, and have it over with?"
"No," snapped Ehrlich.