“SF Antique Dealer Slain — Tortured With Sword,” screamed the headline of the Chronicle on Dec. 15, 1954. The badly beaten body of 71-year-old Albert Clarke was found in his shop at 171 Valencia St. Clarke’s blood was found on the walls and furniture.
Clarke was believed to have a large amount of cash in his shop and he was tortured in an attempt to reveal the money’s location.
Clarke never did.
Two days later, police found $1,570 hidden behind a door panel. Two swords were found in the room, one lying near the body. On each sword was a fingerprint in dried blood type that did not match Clarke. The blades had been wiped clean. The fingerprints were those of Robert Lee Kidd, an ex-con who had served time for robbery. Police searched unsuccessfully for Kidd and asked the FBI to tell them if Kidd was arrested anywhere in the United States.
And there the case sat until 1960, when Kidd was arrested in Indiana on assault charges and brought back to San Francisco. Kidd’s blood type, as well as his fingerprints, was on the sword that killed Clarke.
Kidd’s explanation was that his fingerprints and blood got on the sword days before the murder, when he and an accountant named Clyde Reynolds were playing with the swords. Police found no evidence that an accountant by this name existed in California, so Kidd had no alibi. In addition, Ruth Silleniri, owner of the nearby Pink Horse Tavern, testified that she had seen Kidd with another man at her bar the day before Clarke’s body was found. Kidd, she said, had shown her a silver-plated pistol and asked where he could get bullets for it.
The jury found Kidd’s story unconvincing. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
The conviction was overturned on appeal because of prosecutorial errors and a retrial produced a hung jury. Then, in May of 1962, an advertisement by Gladys Kidd in the San Francisco Examiner changed everything.
“I don’t want my husband to die in the gas chamber for a crime he did not commit. I will therefore offer my services for 10 years as a cook, maid or housekeeper to any leading attorney who will defend him and bring about his vindication.”
The advertisement caught the eye of Vincent Hallinan, a legendary lawyer known for his pugnacious nature and his progressive politics. Vincent often represented unpopular causes and notorious criminal defendants. Hallinan successfully defended labor leader Harry Bridges against deportation and had run for president on the Progressive Party Ticket. Vincent didn’t consider a trial complete unless he had been threatened with contempt of court. He once sued the Roman Catholic Church for fraud, demanding that it prove the existence of heaven and hell.
Hallinan accepted the case on a pro bono basis and mounted a spirited defense. He called the police “a set of frauds and bumblers.” Vincent described his client, Robert Kidd, as a “poor general-issue slob, an expendable, who has been set up as cannon fodder for the police.”
Hallinan’s star witness was the renowned Dr. Paul Kirk, who established the country’s first criminology department at UC Berkeley. Kirk was a distinguished microchemist who had worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II and pioneered many scientific criminal investigation techniques. Kirk’s testimony in the Sam Sheppard case, the case that inspired the “The Fugitive” TV series and movie, was instrumental in proving Sheppard’s innocence.
Kirk testified that detailed microscopic and chemical tests showed that there was no trace of blood on the blade of either sword. This contradicted the testimony of the police lab expert, who had been one of Kirk’s students. Though Kirk agreed that Kidd’s blood type had been found on one of the sword handles, he argued Clarke’s blood type would have also been on the handle if the sword had been used in the killing. It would have been impossible to remove Clarke’s blood without removing Kidd’s blood.
Kirk’s testimony blew a hole in the prosecution’s case, and Robert Kidd was acquitted after 11 hours of jury deliberation. The jury’s verdict did not mean Kidd was innocent, only that the prosecution did not prove he was guilty.
So, did Kidd get away with murder or did the police and district attorney take two years of an innocent man’s life? Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org.