The story so far: At 10 a.m. on Memorial Day 1933, Allene Lamson was found dead in the bathroom of her Palo Alto house. The deputy sheriff arrived 20 minutes later. By 10:30 a.m., the sheriff had decided she was murdered and was accusing her husband, Stanford University Press executive David Lamson of her murder. The defense claimed that Allene’s death was an accident. The trial began in September …
According to the prosecution, David’s motive for the murder was sex. They claimed that he was having an affair with a blonde divorcee and that he was sexually frustrated within his marriage. Witnesses testified that Allene’s health was delicate and that she was often ill. According to David, Allene had a stomach ache the night before she died, so he slept in another room. The prosecution claimed that the Lamsons slept apart because of marital problems and that David was angry about the situation.
The prosecution’s theory was that David confronted Allene in the bathroom the next morning and attacked her with a nine-inch piece of metal pipe. After the murder, the prosecution claimed, he went outside to the garden, raked leaves, chatted with neighbors and put the murder weapon in the trash fire. The prosecution explained that David’s calmness before and his grief after Allene’s body was discovered could be explained by the acting training he had learned in his high school and college shows.
The key battle at the trial was fought between prosecution and defense experts over whether the death was murder or an accident.
Dr. A.W. Meyer, head of Stanford Medical School’s anatomy department, testified for the prosecution that the wounds on the back of Allene’s head could have been made only by four separate blows. Other prosecution witnesses testified that Allene’s death could only be a murder.
Dr E.O. Heinrich, a famous criminologist, was the key defense expert. The prosecution originally hired Heinrich, but his research convinced him that Lamson was innocent. Heinrich rebutted the prosecution’s claims of blood on the pipe but he was prevented from testifying that Allene’s death was caused by an accidental fall in the bathtub.
The judge ruled this evidence was based on experiments that were not scientifically valid.
Prosecutor A.P. Lindsay ruthlessly appealed to the jury’s emotions. At the time, Santa Clara was an agricultural area — “the prune capital of the world.” Lindsay stirred up the class conflicts between the rural jury and the Stanford University educated defendant. He made sure that large photos of Allene’s bloody body were prominently displayed. He pounded the metal pipe on the jury box during his summation and read the scene from “Oliver Twist,” in which the vicious Bill Sykes beats his girlfriend to death.
At the end of the three-week trial and eight hours of deliberation, the jury found Lamson guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to death. The verdict shocked the academic and legal communities.
August Vollmer, a former Berkeley police chief and University of California criminologist called it, “the most amazing situation that has ever arisen in American jurisprudence — a man condemned to die for something that has never happened, and every bit of circumstantial evidence pointing to his innocence.”
Defense attorney Edwin McKenzie wrote a pro bono, 622-page appellate brief challenging every aspect of the prosecution’s case.
Lamson was sent to San Quentin’s death row and started writing about his experiences. His writing was serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle and later became “We Who Are About to Die,” an extraordinary book, written without anger or self-pity, filled with compassion for both convicts and guards.
“My effort has been to observe and report — to tell you what San Quentin and death row are like, rather than to tell you what happened to me,” Lamson wrote.
In November 1934, the California Supreme Court unanimously overturned the verdict, ruled that the trial judge unfairly kept Dr. Heinrich from testifying and said the prosecution’s case was weak. At the same time, the chief justice commented that Lamson was probably guilty but that the prosecution had not proved it beyond a reasonably doubt.
The second trial lasted three months, and the jury deliberated for 30 hours before it announced that they were deadlocked: nine for conviction and three for acquittal. The District Attorney tried Lamson a third time with identical results.
By this time, Lamson’s book had become a best-seller and public opinion had shifted in his favor. After the fourth trial ended in a mistrial, the prosecutor gave up and dismissed the charges.
David Lamson was reunited with his daughter Jenny, who he had not seen for three years. Within a few weeks, they moved to Hollywood, where he worked on the screenplay for the movie version of “We Who Are About to Die.
In 1937, Lamson wrote “Whirlpool,” a novel based on his case, which also became a best-seller. He met and married film and magazine writer Ruth Rankin, who became Jenny’s stepmother. Over the next 15 years, he wrote more than 80 stories for the Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines.
He died in Los Altos in 1975 at the age of 72.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.