Milton Brener on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (continued)



The superintendent of the New Orleans police department is Joseph I. Giarrusso, a dedicated, highly competent policeman who reached his position from the ranks. He was selected by Mayor Morrison for the top position with the Department in 1959, after having served a number of years as head of the Department's Narcotic Squad, which he had developed to a high degree of excellence. His honesty is beyond question.

The opening salvo in a long and bitter battle between Garrison and Giarrusso was fired at the height of Garrison's Bourbon Street campaign when he accused the Department of displaying "monumental disinterest" in his drive against vice. Giarrusso was thus allied with the judges on the side of the racketeering element. The "monumental disinterest" phrase was catching enough to warrant constant repetition by the press in the manner of a child entranced by his first syllable. Stunned by the implications of this criticism, as well as by Grand Jury chastisement for having failed to gather evidence to padlock the Bourbon Street clubs as Garrison had done, Giarrusso responded. In March of 1963 he staged raids on a number of the strip joints and booked owners and employees on charges of obscenity growing out of the striptease performances. Giarrusso referred the evidence to Garrison's office for padlocking action. If he expected approbation from Garrison, he, too, had much to learn. Garrison responded by terming the cases "the purest garbage." Said he:

The cases of which he speaks are not what he represents them to be, not what they should be, and would not provide a solid basis for padlocking a bird cage.

I am not sure Chief Giarrusso knows this, for he has been around some time now and during this time not a single racket has left the city.

In words that allowed little room for doubt. Garrison accused Giarrusso of siding with the underworld against his office. The raids, he said, were made purely for the purpose of providing statistics.

This is your police department. These are a few examples of how it functions behind the facade of statistics. The fact that there are many good men in it makes it all the more of a pity.

Giarrusso's response, like that of the judges, was mild:

The District Attorney is a responsible public official. I call on him to cut out all of this bickering and join me in getting down to work . . . and vigorously prosecute the criminal element of this community.

A lull in the feud lasted until mid-May, at which time Garrison again made headlines by a dinner speech to the Young Men's Business Club in New Orleans during which he announced a crusade against police brutality. Sensational charges of several specific instances of severe beatings, complete with exhibits consisting of blown-up photographs, were displayed. As with the judges, Garrison again sensed a conspiracy:

There exists a pattern of systematic brutality which is not sanctioned by those in official capacities within the New Orleans Police Department. At the same time, there is no apparent organized effort being made to stop this brutality, but rather an organized system of covering up these instances. Garrison referred to the brutality as "an old New Orleans custom" that he was going to end.

The following day nine policemen were charged in connection with the supposed beating of prisoners; the public reaction, however, was not at all what Garrison had expected. Giarrusso stuck by his men, refusing to dismiss them as is customary in such instances, and accused Garrison of double-talk. Many publicly-voiced reactions, including editorials in the local press, queried the extent to which Garrison's craving for publicity was the motivating factor. But Garrison demonstrated hitherto unknown qualities of reverse-field ability, if not overwhelming confidence in the charges he had filed. He announced his dismissal of the charges and referral of the matter to the Grand Jury. The chastened Garrison explained that he was doing this for the purpose of demonstrating the impartiality of his office. He decided, he said, that the most effective way to eliminate police brutality was to cooperate with the department. Nothing more was ever heard of the charges. The Grand Jury made no return, neither true Bills nor no true bills. The matter was forgotten, as were scores of charges resulting from the raids on Bourbon Street.

It was not at all the end of the dispute, however. Some of the most poetic passages to be penned by Garrison were products of his continual publicity barrage against Giarrusso, as witness the following:

The police here are like an army that has a mission to cap- tore an enemy hill. Years ago they went out, surrounded it, and then dug in. They've been dug in for so long that they've forgotten what they are supposed to do. They have made friends with the enemy, and even exchanged birthday and Christmas presents. So why capture the hill and end all the fun?

In August 1963, Executive Assistant Frank Shea was one of the eleven candidates that qualified for a Criminal Court judgeship vacated by the death of Judge Shirley Wimberly. Many of the other candidates had political support in varying strength. Shea had no support, save that of his boss, Jim Garrison. He led the field in the first primary and entered a second primary with the runner-up, Guy Johnson. In the second primary, almost to a man, the defeated candidates threw their support to Johnson, who also garnered practically all organized political support, as well as the endorsement of the city's newspapers. Unabashed, Garrison scheduled a victory party for election night at one of the city's major hotels. The gathering was not to be disappointed. Shea's margin of victory was just enough to discourage a contest of the results. Garrison now had a friend on the bench.

This was the first public test of Garrison's popularity. The significance was not lost on the judges, as was soon to be demonstrated.

In early September, 1963, trial was scheduled for a New Orleans abortionist, one Juliette Pailet, on charges developed by painstaking police work. I was assigned the case for trial. Garrison savored the prospect of conviction as another first for his office as there had been no trials for abortion in New Orleans in many years.

Two days before the scheduled date of trial, Mrs. Pailet's defense attorney, Irvin Dymond, informed me that his client had suffered what he described as a nervous breakdown and would not be able to stand trial as scheduled. The information was verified in essence by her psychiatrist.

Garrison, moving quickly to thwart what he immediately perceived to be an attempt to delay the case by feigning illness, had her examined by another psychiatrist and by the Orleans Parish Coroner, Dr. Nicholas Chetta. The two State experts disagreed with the defendant's doctor as to her ability to stand trial at that time and the question of the delay was argued before Judge Oliver Schulingkamp.

The Judge that afternoon announced that he was granting a delay until early November, there being no jury panel scheduled for the month of October. Garrison's appeal from the decision was to the public through the press. It appeared in the Times-Picayune the following morning.

He was "shocked" at the decision, said Garrison, for there was "absolutely no basis" for it. The Judge's reasons for postponing the case were termed "incredible" in view of the "uncontradicted testimony by experts" that she was able to stand trial.

I had been present at the hearing; Garrison had not. I had disagreed with the Judge's decision, but I could hardly have called it incredible, nor could I have called the testimony of the State's doctor uncontradicted. The implications of the statement were such that I felt a charge of contempt to be inevitable. However, Judge Schulingkamp had stood in opposition to Garrison in company with his seven colleagues on the bench in a battle for public opinion and lost. Now, he was alone, and he had little stomach for a battle with the garrulous DA.

A motion for reconsideration of the continuance was filed and heard the following day. The decision was reversed. The case went to trial in late September, and Mrs. Pailet was convicted.

The trial was my last assignment for Garrison. I and three other assistant DA's left the Office the end of September as a result of his new policy prohibiting substantial civil practice by his staff. But it was not the last the public was to hear of the Pailet case.

Less than three weeks following the trial and Mrs. Pailet's sentence to a term of seven years in the penitentiary, she was released from the Orleans Parish Prison pending her appeal as a result of a reprieve by Governor Jimmie Davis. Convicted defendants sentenced to more than five years in the penitentiary cannot be admitted to bail under Louisiana State law during the pendency of an appeal. The Governor ascribed his action to Mrs. Pailet's ill health and the statement of her doctor that she was in need of medical attention. The reprieve was temporary in nature and did not serve to mitigate the sentence which would begin when and if the conviction were affirmed upon appeal to the State Supreme Court.

Garrison's reaction was swift and lacked none of his customary vigor or color. Referring to the Governor's own description of his reprieve as "an act of human kindness," Garrison retorted:

The fine words with which Governor Davis described his act should not conceal from anyone that he has interfered with the judicial process of the Parish of Orleans.

And the surrounding circumstances of his actions raises questions about his motives and propriety in reprieving Mrs. Pailet.

Garrison obviously was not to be awed by high office. He continued:

I think the Governor's action should be investigated and all of the circumstances of the so-called "act of kindness" should be put under the light of public scrutiny in order to determine what laws Governor Davis may have violated.

And lest there still remain any doubt:

I will study how an investigation of Governor Davis's bizarre act can be begun.

Governor Davis may call it "an act of human kindness" if he wishes, but it looks like an old-fashioned fix to me.

Nor could he resist a side thrust at the man who had prosecuted him for public defamation:

Normally such an investigation of such questionable action by a Governor would be conducted by the Attorney General. But Louisiana has no Attorney General.

Mrs. Pailet remained free until her conviction was affirmed on appeal a few months later, whereupon she commenced serving her term in prison.

If anything ever came of the investigation of Governor Davis, or if any evidence was developed of any "fix," it was never made public.

Quite likely the suspicions voiced by Garrison ran through the minds of others or were voiced frequently in private conversations. The public normally does not ascribe such flimsy underpinnings, however, to public pronouncements by officials. Most will assume that substantial evidence must necessarily underlie any such accusation by a DA This distinction is one that Garrison has had considerable difficulty in grasping.

Davis's term as Governor was due to expire in May, 1964, and under the law, he could not succeed himself. In January of 1964 John J. McKeithen was elected to the Governorship. Garrison had supported McKeithen and the latter publicly acknowledged his indebtedness. McKeithen's gratitude was such that there was, he said, nothing that Garrison wanted that he would not feel obliged to help him to obtain.

Shortly thereafter, the DA was back in action. In early 1964, three men, Sidney Hebert, James Martin, and John Scardino, were sentenced by Judge Malcolm O'Hara to serve three and one-half year terms in the State Penitentiary for the crime of simple kidnapping. Twenty-eight days later, after having served but thirteen days of their sentences, Hebert and Martin were paroled by the State Parole Board. Scardino was also serving time as a narcotics violator and was ineligible for parole. The Parole Board consists of five men, all appointees of the Governor, and sits in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, about ninety miles north of New Orleans, well outside of Garrison's jurisdiction. However, the DA was not to be deterred. The action of the Board was the subject of public indignation and the DA was never one to become enmeshed in fine legal technicalities when he smelled blood.

Dusting off a seldom-used statute authorizing the District Attorney to conduct an "open hearing" whenever he "shall have been informed that a crime or crimes has been committed," Garrison petitioned for such a hearing. alleging that he had been informed that money changed hands in a conspiracy to arrange two quick paroles. He had learned, he said, that money was given to an intermediary, who was to turn it over to "certain public officials" in return for their using their influence to effect the paroles. All five members of the Parole Board, together with a mass of documents and records, were subpoenaed. The hearing, commencing April 1st, was marked by the third courtroom appearance of Jim Garrison since assuming office. Judge Edward A. Haggerty, later to preside at the trial of Clay Shaw, quickly made known the nature of the hearing that was to come. Objections by attorney Sam "Monk" Zelden, representing the Board members, that the hearing was a "vicious proceeding whereby the District Attorney can go on a fishing expedition" were met by the Judge with the retort that Zelden had no standing to object or to be heard. The Parole Board members were witnesses only, said the Judge, and he, Zelden, had no right even to address the Court. No one would have a right to cross-examine any witness produced by the State, nor to object to any evidence to be admitted, for there were no defendants, only witnesses in this hearing. The State Supreme Court refused to interfere, and the hearing commenced.

Garrison called his surprise witness, John Scardino. The twenty-eight-year-old convict from the State Penitentiary testified that he had been told by Martin and Hebert that they were "buying their freedom for $3,500 through a certain New Orleans lawyer who was named both in the testimony and in the public news reports of the hearing. Scardino was also to testify that he "learned" at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, that convicts were acting as agents for the Parole Board in effecting paroles and that "everyone on the Parole Board took money."

All of the members of the Board, as well as the attorney named by Scardino, vehemently denied wrongdoing in public statements to the press. More prominently featured, however, was their in-court testimony, consisting largely of denials of questions pertaining to their purported dishonesty. Somehow, the implication of such questions is never completely removed by disavowal of the witness.

Credible proof of acts of public bribery might not have been too surprising to all segments of the public. Nor would it have been surprising to other segments, however, to learn that guardhouse talk among convicts is not always accurate, or that there exists a tendency among members of the convict element to boast of their prowess in raising large sums to buy favor in high places.

The untested charges of Scardino were sensationalized in the press. Encouraged, Garrison announced plans to subpoena the Governor, clearly impossible under State law due to executive immunity. Attorneys for the hapless Board members and the alleged lawyer intermediary returned to the Supreme Court the following day again seeking a form of help known by lawyers as "extraordinary writs."

The flagrant nature of the testimony prompted a more serious appraisal of the implications by the Supreme Court. A divided Court finally agreed to allow the hearing to continue. A minority of two, including the Chief Justice, John Fournet, were in favor of stopping the proceedings in their entirety. Said the Chief Justice in his dissenting opinion:

It may be well to note that:

1. Not one scintilla of credible evidence has been produced to show that any of the alleged crimes have been committed in Orleans Parish, or anywhere else for that matter.

2. The only evidence adduced is the testimony of a convict brought here from the state penitentiary to give hear-say evidence to the effect that rumors exist among the inmates of the penitentiary indicating a parole may be bought for a certain price when certain attorneys and members of the legislature-whose names are boldly proclaimed and published throughout all news media-are employed by a convict to secure it.

3. The members of the parole board have been subjected to harassment by questions that are suggestive, insinuating, and full of innuendoes intended to leave the impression they are actually guilty of some kind of crime or crimes. Such evidence could not be admitted in the trial of any case in any court of justice in the land, either civil or criminal.

4. To add to this disgraceful spectacle, I note by the news media the Governor of Louisiana has been subpoenaed as a witness.

It would seem to me that if the District Attorney actually has, or felt he had, any information whatsoever that a crime has been committed in Orleans Parish, he should have at least some credible evidence to support that belief, and that he would have first produced it to establish Orleans Parish as the legal jurisdiction in which to engage in such a "fishing expedition" before allowing the character of the individuals involved to be destroyed by such rumors, innuendoes, and completely unreliable hearsay evidence.

However, in permitting the hearing to continue, the Court's majority imposed a series of procedural rules to be followed. They were not at all earthshaking, but did require that the hearing be conducted under certain rather basic rules: All witnesses were to have the right to counsel; no witness was to give hearsay testimony; every person accused was to have the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him; should there be evidence showing the commission of a crime by a named person being investigated, then such person would have a right to be heard, to appear with counsel, to cross-examine witnesses, and to subpoena his own witnesses.

Hardly anything new or novel.

Garrison's response to the Supreme Court edict was delivered as concluding remarks to Judge Haggerty in open court. He was, he announced, shifting his probe to the secrecy of the Grand Jury. He gave as one of his reasons an alleged attempted suicide by Scardino. There was more testimony to obtain from Scardino, said Garrison, but he was too much in fear of his life to testify publicly.

Further, said Garrison, there was a second reason for concluding the open hearing and removing the matter to the secrecy of the Grand Jury room.

. . . The Louisiana Supreme Court has added a fantastic new galaxy of ground rules which, in effect, means the end of open hearings in Louisiana. . . . I do not know what their authority is for the arbitrary invention of these so-called ground rules. They are certainly not in the statute which the legislature passed. They have, so far as I can see, been pulled out of thin air. They have the effect of completely destroying the investigative effectiveness of the open hearing. They place burdens upon the court itself which unavoidably would slow any hearing to a snail's pace.

As a result of this invention of so-called ground rules, this is probably the last open hearing that will ever be attempted in Louisiana.

Your Honor, the District Attorney's Office does not intend to be further obstructed after all the other obstacles we have encountered by this legal destruction of the open hearing. In our judgment, the paroles of Martin and Hebert-and their continued freedom-represent an illegal and improper action by the Parole Board. We intend to get to the bottom of it. Accordingly, we now have commenced a Grand Jury investigation into these strange and highly flagrant paroles. . . .

Your Honor, we have completed taking our depositions in this Honorable Court. Our open hearing is concluded.

If any evidence was ever developed as a result of the Grand Jury investigation, it was never made public. There were no convictions, trials, charges, or arrests. Nor did anyone hear any more about it.

In June Garrison was briefly back in the headlines. Following certain general and perfunctory criticism of the State Pardon Board by the local press, he intended, he said, to subpoena the Attorney General and the Lieutenant Governor, both ex-officio members of the Board (a distinct entity from the Parole Board), to explain their actions publicly. specifically what actions they were to explain was never mentioned. Garrison announced that he was developing an "arsenal of law and precedent" to insure that a public hearing on the Board was not blocked in the criminal District Court or in the Louisiana Supreme Court.

It appeared that, once again, Garrison had sensed a conspiracy:

We see the outline of a hydra which is made up of public officials who have invisible alliances with each other and who maintain in effect an invisible mutual assistance pact.

Before we have successfully called all public officials involved, and we will, we will see part of the hydra flinging violently to block, distort, or end the hearing.

As far as is known, there was never an investigation. If so, it was certainly not public. In any event, there were neither charges nor arrests.

Next came the Legislature. In May 1964. Governor McKeithen was inaugurated and the Legislature convened immediately thereafter for its regular 1964 Session. There were many new faces in Baton Rouge that year and there was general promise of a substantial improvement in performance over legislatures of prior years. Throughout the normal sixty-day period of the session through May and June, the long-tarnished image of the lawmaking body brightened. Much commendable legislation passed. One of the bills adopted, not necessarily one of those of merit, permitted bail bondsmen six months rather than sixty days in which to return fugitive defendants in lieu of forfeiture of bail. Garrison, whose major source of operating funds had been the "fines and fees fund" comprised to a substantial extent of funds derived from forfeiture of bonds of fugitive defendants, had strongly opposed the bill.

On July 6th, 1964, as the Legislature continued in overtime session, banner headlines around the State announced that Garrison had accused the Louisiana Legislature of public bribery. As in the case of his accusation of racketeering influence on the "judges," no individuals were singled out.

Said Garrison:

I am convinced that public bribery occurred in passage of House Bill 894 (the Bail Bondsman Bill). Some of the bribery occurred in this Parish.

I am doing two things: (1) asking the Grand Jury to call in all New Orleans bondsmen and find out how much they contributed. (2) I am asking all District Attorneys in the state to do the same thing in their Parishes.

The other District Attorneys seemed something less than interested. None of them responded. Garrison's source for the supposed bribery was the statement of eight New Orleans bail bondsmen that they were approached by another of their profession for the purpose of contributing $1,000 each to "get this bill passed in the Legislature. It takes money to get a bill passed up in Baton Rouge." There was no indication that any money was actually paid or, if paid, the use to which it had been put by the bondsman in question.

Said Garrison:

We know that some Legislators were conned. We know that bribery occurred. We want to find out where.

Like most of the targets of Garrison's attacks, the legislators were incensed. There was serious talk of addressing him out of office; however, the Governor's political obligations to Garrison indicated the certainty of a far milder response. Garrison addressed himself to the talk of ejectment, however:

This seems to be a Legislature in which bail bondsmen out vote District Attorneys by 100 to 1. So it would look like -- if such an attempt is made -- I won't have an abundance of support.

Undoubtedly, I would be in a much better position with the Louisiana Legislature if I were a bail bondsman rather than a District Attorney because then I would be able to block any sort of action I chose.

Two days later, the Legislature unanimously censured Garrison for his accusations. Garrison was not abashed. He was, he said, honored by the Legislature's unanimous censure of him because he "received more votes than the Bail Bondsmen Bill." "The resolution in fine, gentlemen. Now I would like to ask: Where is the money?" Garrison further informed the public that his office had censured the Legislature. He had spoken to each one of his assistants, he said, and they had unanimously concurred in the censure. "The Legislature reminds me of Humpty Dumpty, who said the most humiliating thing was to be called an egg," said Garrison. "However, if you are an egg, it is not humiliating."

One legislator lamented on the floor of the House of Representatives that in the closing days of the session " A big, dark cloud came out in the headlines . . . the Legislature's guilty of receiving bribes. That's what the headlines said, regardless of what the small print said. The dark cloud which has been created by the political garbage hangs over us. I don't want to make him [Garrison] a martyr, he isn't worth it."

The Governor signed the Bail Bondsmen Bill "to show his confidence in the Legislature." He pointed out that the District Attorneys Association of Louisiana had not put itself on record in opposition to the bill and that in a poll of its members they took no clear-cut position on the matter. Several bondsmen and others were subpoenaed before the Grand Jury. No indictments were returned. Nor was anyone charged or arrested.

Later that summer, Rudolph Becker, a veteran criminal attorney and former Assistant District Attorney, ran for the Judgeship of Division "E" of the Criminal District Court in opposition to Judge Cocke. A number of Becker's newspaper advertisements, as well as his campaign literature, bore the unmistakable imprint of Garrison's clever and fertile creativity. Cocke was an inept campaigner, and his support by several former District Attorneys, State legislators and other city officials, as well as many members of the Bar was scarcely adequate to answer the ridicule heaped upon him. Toward the end of the campaign, Garrison actively and openly supported Becker, who entered a second primary with Cocke. Cocke was ultimately defeated. Becker became the second judge to be elected with Garrison's support.

For a number of months thereafter, it was mercifully quiet. It almost seemed as though there were no more worlds to conquer. The major event was the departure from office of First Assistant Frank Klein, who lost out in a power struggle with Chief Investigator Pershing Gervais. Klein quit in a huff when it became clear that Garrison considered Gervais his chief lieutenant. Gervais' status was never questioned thereafter. Charles Ward became Klein's successor as First Assistant District Attorney.

If Garrison's repeated and dramatic assaults on high office produced little by way of results, he nevertheless captivated the public with his daring. He was now unquestionably one of the most powerful political figures in the State-certainly the most feared by politicians. His position was, indeed, enviable. But Garrison wore his crown precariously. It would be defended violently against even the mildest attacks. There would be a vigorous reaction to the faintest sign of hostility from whatever quarter. And by June of 1965 another city-wide campaign for Mayor, District Attorney, and other city officials was about to swing into high gear.


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