2 minute read

Burton Abbott Trial: 1955

Amused Defendant

Just about the only person unaffected by these antics was the defendant himself. Throughout the trial, Abbott maintained an air of detached amusement. A man of some refinement—he played better than average chess, enjoyed crosswords and created haute cuisine dishes—Abbott didn't bother to stifle his contempt for all that was happening. He displayed that same cockiness on the witness stand, openly scoffing at prosecution charges that he had first attempted to rape Stephanie Bryan and then killed her when she resisted. It was all a "monstrous frame-up," he said, reiterating the stance he had taken from the beginning. As for the articles found in his basement, Abbott said that in May the basement served as a polling station. Dozens of people would have had access to it. Any one of them could have planted the incriminating evidence.

The subject of rape was one which Assistant District Attorney Folger Emerson pursued stridently. Sidestepping earlier pathological testimony that advanced decomposition made it impossible to determine if sexual assault had taken place, Emerson declared,

I think it time to say from the evidence in this case that the original intent of the defendant when he kidnapped Stephanie Bryan was to commit a sex crime.… I think that what happened to Stephanie before she was killed was worse than death itself.… If ever there was a crime that fitted the punishment of death, this is it.

Emerson then concluded with one of the strangest and most garbled appeals ever to a jury:

The state endeavors to take a life in the most humane way possible. Wouldn't it have been a blessing to Stephanie that if she had to die that she could have died that way than the way she did?

Coakley's syntax was less tangled and more effective. Brandishing the dead girl's brassiere and panties, he shouted, "You've heard the defense counsel ask 'What is the motive for this crime? What is the reason? Why? Why? Why?'" He offered the underwear in mute reply, branding Abbott a "typical psychopath and a pathological liar."

The only surprise after this was that it took the jury seven days to reach their verdict: guilty of first-degree murder. But in that delay were perhaps sown the seeds of the future doubt that would assail this case. After Judge Snook passed sentence of death, Abbott was taken to San Quentin to await execution. For more than a year his lawyers fought for commutation, but on March 15, 1957, Abbott was strapped into the gas chamber. Just minutes later a stay of execution was phoned through to the prison, but by then it was too late. The cyanide fumes were already creeping up around Abbott's face. Minutes later he was dead.

The manner and circumstances of Burton Abbott's execution sparked a renewal of the debate over whether society has the right to take life, especially on circumstantial evidence alone. It is an argument that shows no signs of abating.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Crimes And Punishment. Vol.16. England: Phoebus, 1974.

Gaute, J.H.H. and Robin Odell. The Murderers' Who's Who. London: W.H. Allen, 1989.

Marine, Gene. The Nation (May 19, 1956): 424-426.

Newsweek (February 6, 1956): 29.

Time (March 25, 1957): 25.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Burton Abbott Trial: 1955 - Emotion Over Evidence, Amused Defendant