I took a pilgrimage of sorts today. Nothing arduous like hiking to Jerusalem or Mecca. From my LA house, I drove down the street to Sunset Boulevard. and took a right to Jerry Giesler’s house to commune with the great defense lawyer of the Hollywood’s by-gone golden age.
His house is an English-styled estate built on its own triangle between Camden and Benedict Canyon Drives and Sunset Boulevard at 901 Benedict Canyon Drive. Built in 1948 it is surrounded by more than an acre of lushly landscaped grounds. Jerry had good taste.
Today Giesler is rarely remembered, but at one time he was the most famous defense lawyer in America. When I started trying cases, I read his bio, “The Jerry Geisler Story,” and I loved the stories about his trials. But it was a different world back then in criminal defense.
He was admitted to the Bar in 1910. Giesler served his apprenticeship by assisting Earl Rogers in the defense of the nation’s top criminal defense attorney, Clarence Darrow. In mid-trial, Darrow and Rogers asked Giesler to research a legal issue and he returned with a 40-page memo of law, greatly impressing both of them. Darrow, however, performed the final argument himself, which is a singular work of genius.
In the 1920s, he defended the housewife in the infamous “Love in the Loft Case,” but became truly famous by defending theater mogul Alexander Pantages in his rape case.
Pantages was charged with raping 17-year-old Eunice Pringle in a closet at his famous theater. The press had a field day with the charges and in the resulting trial, insuring public opinion was against him. Pantages was convicted and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Geisler appealed and successfully obtained a new trial from the California Supreme Court, basing his argument on the judge’s exclusion of testimony relating to Pringle’s moral character. Clearly that would never happen today. It would all be excluded by the rape shield laws.
At the second trial she appeared on the stand without make-up and dressed demurely. Giesler convinced the judge to order her to put on the dress she wore that day. It was bright red and very sexy. What are the chances of any judge doing that these days! The morons in the Florida Legislature even passed a law excluding any description of a rape accuser’s clothing at a trial. Geisler then cross-examined her on her many past sexual activities including prostitution. Most courts exclude mention of prostitution by an alleged victim today.
Pantages was acquitted. In 1933, Pringle approached a lawyer and told the lawyer that her story about Pantages raping her was a lie concocted for financial reasons. Under today’s rules, the rape shield statutes etc., Pantages never would have obtained a new trial, nor be acquitted and would have served 50 years in San Quentin. You decide if political correctness is worth it.
Geisler followed the Pantages trial by successfully defending Errol Flynn on statutory rape charges (this is where the expression “in like Flynn” comes from).
The statutory rapes supposedly occurred during a sailing trip to Catalina Island located right off LA. One of the women took the stand and testified that Flynn had taken off her clothes. Geisler got her to admit that she had consented to the disrobing, then Geisler demanded: ‘Didn’t you want him to take them off?’ Her disarming reply won the day: ‘I didn’t have no objections.’”
Nevertheless, she testified he came to her cabin and “got into bed with me and completed an act of sexual intercourse”—an act against which, she admitted, she did not struggle. The next night, she said, he took her to his cabin to look at the moon through the porthole and there repeated the offense. This time, she said, she fought back.
The prosecution introduced an astronomer to back up her story of seeing the moon through the porthole. Geisler, who was way ahead of the prosecution on this point, proved that, judging by the boat’s course, the moon could not have been seen from Flynn’s cabin.
Another part of Geisler’s strategy was to select nine women on the jury. It worked, but not as the so-called experts claim (that they adored Flynn), but rather because they didn’t trust the two female accusers. All my jury research in rape cases has proven that time and time again.
Flynn was only guilty of making an unfortunate quip: “I like my whiskey old and my women young.”
Other famous clients included actor Robert Mitchum, and director Busby Berkeley. After the first two trials for murder ended in hung juries, Berkeley was acquitted in a third.
Giesler also won acquittal for stripper Lili St. Cyr (he even got the judge to return her g-string), Charlie Chaplin, gangster Bugsy Siegel, producer Walter Wanger–accused of shooting an agent who was paying too much attention to actress Joan Bennett, then Wanger’s wife.
Perhaps his most famous case was in 1958, when Giesler defended 14-year-old Cheryl Crane, actress Lana Turner’s daughter, who was accused of fatally stabbing her mother’s abusive lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato. Crane had been molested and raped by Turner’s fourth husband, actor Lex Barker. Turner was physically abused by mob enforcer Stompanato, a violent man who slapped her around but refused to leave her no matter how long she tried to dump him.
On April 4, 1958, Crane stabbed Stompanato to death and claimed he was brutally beating her mother and she had no choice but to defend her. Giesler convinced a jury she was right and they returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.
Insiders later revealed that Geisler coached Turner for hours for her most important performance (the courtroom drama was broadcast live on radio and later shown on TV).
After all these successes, Hollywood coined the catchphrase “Get me Giesler”because he seemed to have the power to solve even the toughest problems.
One further point, Giesler, who was short, squat and balding with a nasally voice, said if Hollywood were casting a lawyer such as himself, he would never get the part. Proving that it makes no difference how you look or how you sound but rather what you have to say.