Gertrude Morris Trial: 1952 - Extraordinary Defense Opening, Defendant Flees Courtroom
Defendant: Gertrude Morris
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Jake Ehrlich
Chief Prosecutor: Norman Elkington
Judge: Harry J. Neubarth
Place: San Francisco, California
Date of Trial: January 22-February 11, 1952
Verdict: Guilty: manslaughter
Sentence: 1-10 years
SIGNIFICANCE: In this extraordinary murder trial, a dynamic defense counsel found himself fighting not just the prosecution but his client as well.
On the afternoon of April 10, 1951, Gertrude and Milton Morris were trading barbs at the latter's office in San Francisco. This was nothing new. For the past 10 years their marriage had been a loveless, crumbling union. Today, when Milton, a well-to-do executive, wanted to know why Gertrude refused to drive the new Chevrolet coupe he had just bought her, Gertrude ran off, sobbing hysterically. That evening the fight continued at the Morrises' luxurious Lakeside home, until 6.30 P.M. when Milton announced he was leaving for good and began packing his bags. Before he could reach the door, a. 32 caliber slug cut him down.
Gertrude Morris made no attempt to deny murder and when her trial opened on January 22, 1952, she seemed indifferent to her fate, laughing inanely while her counsel, Jake Ehrlich, succeeded in sitting a jury where women outnumbered men 3-1. The entire prosecution lasted only two-and-a-half hours, the briefest ever heard in a capital case at San Francisco's Superior Court. For Norman Elkington, chief assistant district attorney, the facts were plain: Morris admitted shooting her husband in the back, with premeditation, therefore it was first-degree murder.
Inspector Al Nelder told how Morris, when arrested at the crime scene, had been most insistent that there was no other woman involved. Nelder, puzzled, had asked, "Do you realize what you have done?"
"Yes, sir. I do now."
"Are you sorry?"
'I certainly am, because I loved him. Maybe that was my whole trouble, I loved him too much."
Another witness, neighbor George W. Jones, testified that Morris had knocked on his door at 2.00 A.M. and asked him to call the police. This timing was important because, on Morris's own admission, she had shot her husband some seven hours earlier and in all that time she had done nothing to help him. Ehrlich managed to mitigate this apparent callousness somewhat by getting Jones to agree that, in eight years, he had never heard the Morrises exchange a cross word.
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