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Erle Stanley Gardner: Meet the Man Who Fought to Save the Wrongfully Convicted

The Court of Last Resort was today’s Innocence Project.

erle stanley gardner

Long before Serial re-examined the evidence in the case of Adnan Syed, or Making a Murderer highlighted the flaws of the criminal justice system, attorney Erle Stanley Gardner (pictured above) founded the Court of Last Resort.

In 1945, Gardner took on the case of William Marvin Lindley, a California man who had been convicted under questionable circumstances of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl and was about to be executed. With just days to spare before the execution date, Gardner successfully convinced Governor Earl Warren to spare Lindley’s life.

For Gardner, the case was an eye-opening experience; he realized that there were numerous wrongfully convicted people condemned to life sentences or languishing on death row. Soon after getting Lindley’s death sentence overturned, Gardner established the Court of Last Resort—and he didn’t have to wait long before he got his first case. Clarence Boggie was convicted of murdering 78-year-old Moritz Peterson in Spokane, Washington in 1933. But the evidence that put Boggie behind bars just didn’t add up.

Gardner details how the Court of Last Resort came to fruition and discusses his most notable cases in The Court of Last Resort: The True Story of a Team of Crime Experts Who Fought to Save the Wrongfully Convicted.

Read on for an excerpt and then download the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.


erle stanley gardner court of last resort

The case itself was fully as incredible as any of the other things connected with Clarence Boggie.

On June 26, 1933, Moritz Peterson, an elderly recluse 78-years-old, was rooming at a private boarding house in Spokane, Washington. He owned a little shack some distance away at the rear of a deep lot on East 20th Avenue in Spokane. There was an occupied dwelling house on the front of this lot, and also one on the adjoining lot.

Peterson was in the habit of leaving his boarding house in the morning, taking a street car to the little shack, and there spending the day puttering around in the garden, taking care of his chickens, pulling weeds, etc. In the evening he’d go back to the place where he boarded. Most of his clothes were kept in the little shack house.

Peterson, in common with most of the world, was in rather straitened circumstances at the time. He had a diamond ring which he believed to be worth $500, but he had been trying in vain to sell it for $100. (This was at the time when the country was in the depths of a depression and ready money was a very tight commodity.)

The man’s financial circumstances are mentioned because it would be almost out of the question to think that anyone who actually knew Moritz Peterson would contemplate trying to rob him. On the other hand there is the distinct possibility that someone who didn’t really know him might have thought this eccentric old man, living an ordered life, could well have laid by a little ready cash which he could have kept concealed in his shack or on his person.

Sometime on Saturday night, June 24, 1933, someone broke into Moritz Peterson’s shack during the night and made a most thorough job of ransacking the place. Towels having been pinned over the windows so that people in the nearby houses would not notice any light, the intruder proceeded to search every nook and cranny, opening boxes, scattering canceled checks and documents all over the floor.

If one could judge from external appearances the intruder must have been searching for a particular document of some sort. Canceled checks would ordinarily be kept in neat bundles, and it is hardly possible that an intruder would have opened these bundles of checks and documents all over the floor.

If one could judge from external appearances the intruder must have been searching for a particular document of some sort. Canceled checks would ordinarily be kept in neat bundles, and it is hardly possible that an intruder would have opened these bundles of checks and strewn the papers over the floor in a search for money, yet that could have been the case. The burglar could well have reasoned that the money might have been secreted in the most unlikely places.

Sunday morning, when Peterson arrived at the shack, he was confronted with the wreckage and complete disorder. He was, of course, very much upset, but he refused to allow the police to be notified. He even went so far as to state that he knew the identity of the intruder and didn’t want anything done about it.

Peterson put in Sunday straightening up the place. By afternoon he told the neighbors that the only things which had been taken were a pair of coveralls and a pair of black shoes.

If anyone had wanted to hold up or assault Moritz Peterson the worst day that could possibly have been selected would have been Monday, the conventional washday.

Yet apparently someone was concealed in the Peterson house on Monday, the 26th day of June, 1933, waiting for him to arrive.

erle stanley gardner shack

Photo: Boris Johnson / Flickr (CC)

The neighbors of course didn’t see this person enter, but they did hear the sound of a terrific struggle emanating from the little shack. The time was probably between 10 and 25 minutes after 10:00 in the morning.

The sounds of that struggle attracted a great deal of attention. Housewives and children ran from their houses. They were in time to see a stocky, heavy-set, bushy-haired individual, who ran with a peculiar “sideways gait,” running from the house. They chased this individual for some two or three blocks. Then the man disappeared in a wooded area. No one had been able to get a look at his face.

While one of the housewives and some children were chasing the individual who ran away from Moritz Peterson’s shack, one of the other women had looked in at his door, found Peterson lying, moaning, with his head virtually beaten in. She dashed to her house and telephoned the police.

What happened after that was what might be called a tragedy of errors.

The little party who were running after the fugitive, trying to keep him in sight, followed him until he entered a thicket of underbrush, whereupon they turned back.

The first officer to arrive on the scene was a motorcycle officer, who came tearing up with siren screaming, and came to a stop before the house at the front of the lot.

The excited audience explained to the motorcycle officer what had happened. The motorcycle officer promptly decided that his duties were along other lines and in other fields. He dashed away from there, fast.

Police officers from the central station tore through the streets with sirens screaming, to come to the Peterson shack.

Apparently it was at this time that the officers found Moritz Peterson lying on the floor, his head so terribly smashed that one of the eye sockets had been completely broken. A homemade weapon was on the floor beside the dying man.

The officers were told by the boys that the assailant had jumped into the brush a couple of blocks up the street, so the officers valiantly permitted themselves to be guided to the spot where the murderer had disappeared, at which time they suddenly discovered they had “forgotten their guns.” So they returned to their automobile, and, with siren screaming, went tearing back to get their guns.

In the meantime an ambulance had been summoned and the ambulance, also accompanied by the sound of sirens, went to the scene of the crime to pick up Moritz Peterson and transport him to a hospital. The officers, by this time having fully armed themselves, came dashing back to the scene of the crime.

A description of all this confusion and particularly the noise of the sirens is important for reasons which will presently become apparent.

After Peterson had been removed to the hospital, the police made a rather cursory examination of the premises and took into their possession the weapon with which the crime had been committed. It was a homemade bludgeon which had been fashioned with considerable skill and ingenuity, and consisted of a round, water-washed rock wrapped in burlap. This burlap had been tightly twisted and stitched so that the long twisted burlap made a semi-flexible handle. The whole thing was a most potent, deadly weapon, which could strike terrific blows. The assailant had repeatedly struck Moritz Peterson on the head with this weapon.

Strangely enough, however, despite the fact that Peterson had received these fatal injuries, he still remained conscious. The dying man apparently experienced a sensation of great pressure on his brain and thought there was a weight-still on his head, but by the time he reached the hospital he was able to talk. He kept complaining of this terrible weight that was crushing his head.

Sometime after reaching the hospital Moritz Peterson’s daughter was summoned, and at the bedside of her dying father asked him in the presence of witnesses if he knew who had done this thing to him.

Peterson admitted that he did but didn’t want to mention the man’s name. The daughter kept insisting, and finally Peterson stated that if she would take the terrific weight off of his head he would tell her; and then, after further questioning, mentioned a name, a name which was heard very distinctly by the daughter.

This name was not the name of Clarence Boggie, nor could that name at any time ever be connected in any way with him. At the time there was nothing to connect Clarence Boggie with Moritz Peterson or with the burglary of the Peterson shack.

The police, in the course of their investigation, were reported to have arrested a suspect who was positively identified by the witnesses who had seen the man running away from the Peterson shack, but after a while the police announced that this man had a perfect alibi and he was released.

This fact, mentioned casually in the local press, was subsequently to assume a very great significance, but at the time it appeared as one of the various diversions, and was snowed under by the conjectures and surmises and press releases given out by the police in order to show that they were diligently working on the case.

Then gradually the case petered out. The police ran down clues, gave the usual optimistic statements to newspaper reporters, and wound up by getting nowhere.

Moritz Peterson died shortly after being admitted to the hospital, and had lost consciousness a very short time after making the statement to his daughter in which he had named his assailant.

At this time, Clarence Boggie was on the streets of Portland, Oregon.

Want to keep reading? Download The Court of Last Resort: The True Story of a Team of Crime Experts Who Fought to Save the Wrongfully Convicted on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.

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Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons

Published on 01 May 2017

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