Proof of Guilt
California Lawyer

Proof of Guilt

Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America

August 2013

Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham
and the Politics of Executing Women in America
by Kathleen A. Cairns
University of Nebraska Press, 238 pages,
$29.95, hardcover

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California claims the country's largest death-row population, but it has always been reluctant to execute the gentler sex. In the early 1950s, when about 500 men had been executed in the state, Barbara Graham was only the third woman to meet that end. Framed by her sensationalized case, Proof of Guilt highlights how and why the debate over the rights and wrongs of capital punishment lives on.

In 1953 Mabel Monahan, a sixtysomething widow living in Burbank, was found beaten and strangled to death, with a strip of cloth bound around her neck. The murder's motive was money. Rumors had it that the former owner of her house, Monahan's son-in-law, had stashed $100,000 - skimmed from mobster-run casinos - in a safe inside the house.

Nearly two months later, police tracked down a trio of suspects holed up in a shabby apartment outside Los Angeles. Emmett Perkins and John Santo both boasted long rap sheets, including several violent crimes. But it was Barbara Graham, with a history of only penny-ante offenses that included vagrancy, prostitution, bad checks, and perjury, who captured the public's attention.

In copious press accounts, Graham - an attractive woman by most lights - was often dubbed "Bloody Babs" or "The Iceberg Blond." No cute monikers were given to the two men indicted with her.

As a child, Graham was shuttled among caretakers before her mother sent her to the Ventura State School for Girls, the same place her mother had lived years before. Pregnant and married by age 16, Graham later had a peripatetic work life, first as a "seagull" chasing sailors willing to pay for dates while their ships were in dock, then less innocently as a prostitute and dice girl at casinos.

Compounding Graham's lucklessness, her case was assigned to superior court judge Charles Fricke, a.k.a. "San Quentin Charlie," whose many high-profile trials usually ended with defendants being sentenced to prison.

But it was likely Graham's defiance that ultimately did her in. She refused to dress demurely for trial, opting for fashion-forward outfits that emphasized her comely figure, as well as sporting well-applied makeup that did little to mask her pique with the entire judicial process.

Though the evidence against her was circumstantial, the jury deliberated less than seven hours before reaching a verdict of first-degree murder for Graham. Perkins and Santo were also convicted of the charges, but with little public notice. All three were sentenced to die on June 3, 1955.

For Graham, there were two last-minute reprieves, but they served to buy her precious little time - postponing her execution from 10:00 to 11:30 that morning. She donned fire-red silk pajamas in the holding cell, and in a final clutch at vanity, refused the warden's direction to go barefoot to the death chamber, explaining, "I look better with my shoes on." She died at age 31, about eight minutes after the cyanide pellets were released in the chamber.

The unhappy ending for Barbara Graham comes about one-third of the way through Kathleen Cairns's book. What follows is a somewhat unfocused potpourri of chapters packed with dates and facts and cases, with little analysis.

The best of them details how San Francisco Examiner reporter Edward Montgomery, who covered Graham's murder trial, was haunted after her death and approached Hollywood moguls about making a movie about it. The result, I Want to Live!, starred Susan Hayward, who won a Best Actress Oscar for the role in 1959. Producer Walter Wanger eagerly took on the project just after serving a much-publicized prison stint (for shooting his wife's lover twice in the groin), which left Wanger angry with both the press and the judicial system. But that's a story for another book.

The film served as a catalyst for a 1960 California State Assembly hearing into whether prosecutors had suppressed evidence in the trial and an enduring debate on capital punishment.

Unlike the movie, Cairns's book strives to be evenhanded. Cairns, a lecturer in the history department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, started as a staunch opponent of the death penalty, then changed her mind after reporting on the 1982 trial of "The Freeway Killer," William Bonin, convicted of kidnapping and killing at least twelve boys and young men.

Proof of Guilt touches on sexism in sentencing and summarizes California's on-again/off-again embrace of capital punishment - from 1957, when it was the first state to mandate bifurcated trials in capital cases, to Robert Alton Harris's execution in 1992, after the gas chamber in the state had been dormant for a quarter century.

The book's subtitle promises an analysis of "the politics of executing women in America," though Cairns doesn't quite deliver, glancing over the common pros and cons of cost and disparity in race and economic status regarding the death penalty. Still, on the off chance you have not yet formed an opinion about whether capital punishment should continue, you will likely have one by the final turn of the page.

Barbara Kate Repa, a contributing writer to California Lawyer, is a lawyer, writer, and editor in San Francisco.

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