by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On Tuesday, 19 August 1856, the second day of the trial of William W. Jenkins, charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Antonio Ruiz during the service of a civil process in writ of attachment for a $50 debt, came to an end late in the day. Witness testimony was given the previous Friday the 15th after jury selection the preceding day and, as the third part of this post covered, the strategy of Jenkins’ defense team, composed of Jonathan R. Scott, Myron Norton and Ezra Drown, was two-fold.
First they focused on reported attempts by main witness María Candelaria Pollorena, the common-law wife of Ruiz, to influence the testimony of another key witness, Cesaria Navarro, who had to be arrested and forced to court to give her version of what happened. Then, they brought in well-known Anglo citizens and community leaders to attest to Pollorena’s reputation and lack of truthfulness as an attempt to impugn and sully her character.
On the last day, closing arguments were presented by Los Angeles County District Attorney Cameron E. Thom, for the prosecution, and Jonathan R. Scott, one of the trio of counsel for defendant William W. Jenkins in his trial in which he was charged with second-degree, District Court Judge Benjamin I. Hayes then gave the jury its instructions regarding its deliberations upon a verdict.
As has been noted several times during this post and the July one dealing with the killing of Ruiz and its immediate aftermath, the coverage of two Los Angeles newspapers, the English-language Star, whose proprietor was Henry Hamilton, then in his late Twenties and the Spanish-language El Clamor Público, whose publisher was the brilliant and precocious 19 year-old Francisco P. Ramirez.
While Hamilton and his paper were initially moderately critical of the “rashness” of Jenkins in shooting and killing the “inoffensive” Ruiz, the resulting tensions that led to a group of Latinos gathering on Fort Moore Hill west of the Plaza and contemplating storming the jail and seizing Jenkins for a lynching, while Anglo and Californio elites formed a “defense committee” under the belief that there was a broader sacking of the town and murdering of its white inhabitants under consideration shifted the Star‘s attention toward these issues. There was a skirmish after a few Anglos went on a reconnaissance mission toward the hill and Latinos rode down, with shots fired and Marshal William C. Getman grazed on the head by a bullet.
Ramirez and El Clamor took a harsher position on the killing, calling Jenkins’ act an outright murder, though it expressed concerns about the standoff and went so far in mid-August to suggest that any further violence after Ruiz’ killing would have been a disaster for the city’s Latino population as there was no way they could have withstood the vengeance that would have been wreaked upon them by the Americans. Still, the young publisher took to writing lengthy articles to educate his readers on the court system and reforms that he suggested it needed.
By the time the papers got to reporting on the trial in their editions of 23 August, the Star limited its commentary to a very brief note that “this case was before the Court several days last week,” a list of the dozen jurors (all Anglo) and the somewhat dismissive statement that “our readers will recollect the testimony in this case, as we published it in detail, as taken before Judge Hayes on the preliminary examination. It is unnecessary to republish it now.” It, however, did add that “Additional testimony was produced, as to the character of the principal witness, Maria Candelaria Pollorena, which was to the effect that she had been of bad repute, some of the witnesses stating that they would not believe her on oath.” While this was essentially true, there was more to the testimony, specifically what was presented by Cesaria Navarro, who was visiting Pollorena’s Main Street. As noted above, though, Navarro had to be arrested on a bench warrant and jailed before she was escorted to the Spring Street adobe courthouse to appear as a witness.
One of the points raised by the defense, because the object seized by Jenkins to satisfy the writ of attachment for Ruiz’ $50 debt was a guitar, in questioning Navarro concerned Pollorena’s taking of the instrument after the shooting and the purported existence of a vihuela, which is shaped like a guitar but tuned like a lute. Seizing on the idea that, at the preliminary hearing, Pollorena was observed apparently trying to coach a visibly nervous Navarro on her responses, the defense addressed its trial questions to her in an effort to get Navarro to confirm that Pollorena had indeed taken the guitar to another room in the house and this was done with a strong statement of certainty.
For her part, Pollorena was put on the defensive about the alleged attempts to influence Navarro’s testimony, though she insisted she had done no such thing. Bringing in such well-known and powerful locals as Benjamin D. Wilson, Abel Stearns and Mayor Stephen C. Foster to testify as to Pollorena’s character and veracity was a cornerstone of the defense effort to sow doubt in the minds of the jury about her, because the concept of “reasonable doubt” is an essential one, especially if all it would take is one dissenter in a murder trial to secure an acquittal.
When it came to final arguments, the Star, again, was minimalist to the point of meaninglessness, merely mentioning that “C.E. Thom, Esq., District Attorney, addressed the jury, and ably reviewed the evidence” while then stating that “he was followed by J.R. Scott, Esq., for the defence: and “Mr. Thom closed the case on behalf of the People.” What the paper did think was important, though, was to provide a paraphrase of much of Judge Hayes’ jury instructions, adding they “were very minute, putting the law and the facts clearly and explicitly, at the same time concisely, before the jury.” As to the extract, it began with,
Homicide is justifiable when done in necessary self-defence, that is, in defence of one’s life or person. it is likewise justifiable, when done in defence of our property against one who manifestly intends or endeavors, by violence or surprise, to commit a felony as to such property.
The next excerpt concerned the idea that, once Jenkins seized the guitar as part of his official duty, “it became his property,” and the taking of it (by Pollorena and Ruiz) “would be robbery, which in law is a felony,” though it was added that this was dependent on the believe that such an act was of “felonious intent.” In such an instance, an officer could defend that property “as if it were his own; but no further,” and, moreover, “he has no peculiar privilege . . . to be authorized to kill one attempting to take it from him” and “in any case that would not authorize killing by a private person.”
More telling, however, was Hayes’ careful elucidation that
A homicide cannot be treated as justifiable in self-defence, unless it appears in evidence that the danger was so urgent and pressing that, in order to save the life of the slayer or to prevent his receiving great bodily harm, the killing of assailant was absolutely necessary. It must be remembered too that a bare fear . . . will not be sufficient to justify the killing . . . and that the party killing really acted under these fears, and not in a spirit of revenge.
The judge added that “the law is tender of life” and “its shield is never withdrawn from around the life or person of a citizen” because “the rights of both are amply cared for.” Next, the jurist observed that there were proper punishments for any citizen resisting an officer in the execution of their duty, identifying the sentences and fines thereto, and adding that if officer, serving in a capacity connected to a criminal case, killed an assailant, this was lawful. He noted, though, that “the distinction between civil and criminal cases must always be borne in mind.
Hayes also cautioned that, in dealing with resistance by a subject of a process, an officer could only resort to killing “in the last necessity” and that “all reasonable mans must have been used without success . . . and from all probability there must be no prospect of being able to prevent injury . . . and the consequent escape of the accused.” What came next seems to be the crux of the instructions and as clear a signal from the judge to the jury as could be imagined:
No officer can be considered as justifiably killing in self-defence, or in defence of property, in the execution of merely civil process, unless it be absolutely necessary; and the necessity must exist to the same extent that would be requisite to justify a private person [in doing so.] He must not rashly resort to arms; and upon every slight resistance; when the law has provided other means of punishing the offender . . . If property be levied upon by an officer, and after a lawful levy, be attempted to be taken from him by force—not amounting to a robbery or other felony—this provision affords one mode of redress to the injured creditor, namely, by a criminal prosecution. Homicide under such circumstances could never be considered justifiable, although the nature of the prosecution, in indulgence to human infirmity, might reduce the killing by the officer to voluntary manslaughter.
El Clamor Público, however, quite exceptionally, moved all of the usual advertisements comprising most or all of the first page elsewhere and devoted it and 40% of the second page to the trial, while adding a relatively short editorial on page three. The first page coverage included a detailed summary of the trial proceedings from the admitting of Jenkins to bail on 23 July with an initial charge contemplated as manslaughter to a 9 August determination by the Grand Jury to indict him on a second-degree murder charge.
After discussing the potential sentences for each and observing that Jenkins pled not guilty and was released on posting $4,000 bail, the 48 potential jurors (all Anglo) were called up and, after many pulling of ballots, the trial jury of a dozen was finally selected. The non-appearance and subsequent arrest of Navarro was also noted and then, on the 15th, the taking of testimony from her, the attending doctor of the mortally wounded Ruiz, Pollorena, and those who were questioned about the latter’s reputation and truthfulness. Finally, there was the excerpt from Jenkins’ written statement about what happened with Ruiz and Pollorena that Hayes allowed to be read in court and the longer portion which he denied.
In commenting on the closing arguments, El Clamor was initially as brief as its competitor in referring to Thom’s initial statement, merely noting that “in a strong speech that lasted about an hour, the prosecutor held that the defendant was guilty of second degree murder,” before it gave a great deal more attention to what Scott had to say over an argument that lasted twice as long. The 6’4″ lawyer, who towered over virtually anyone in town and was once known for demonstrating how fragile the courthouse was by reaching his hand up to a beam and squeezing it as dry rot, termite damage, or both, ate away at the structure,
insisted that the jury should consider the testimony of Maria Candelaria as unworthy of being believed, because so many witnesses had sworn that because of her bad reputation in the community, they should not believe her under oath, because she was contradicted on important points by Cesaria Navarro, who Pollorena attempted to persuade to swear falsely to ruin the defendant . . .
Scott, however, also sought to convince the jury that, in Ruiz bringing Jenkins back to the house, after which there was the wrestling over the guitar and the resulting shooting, and with Pollorena taking the instrument to another room, this “was nothing more or less but an act of robbery, according to law,” because Jenkins, in duly seizing it according to the writ of attachment, could consider it his property. El Clamor recorded that Scott, as “the main foundation of his defense,” went so far as to insist that “Ruiz and Candelaria [had] a prearranged plan [and] attacked Jenkins with the intent to commit murder,” so that, if the jury believed that this was their design, then the death was justifiable.
When the District Attorney returned to finish his argument, there was a little more coverage by Ramirez, who observed that Thom “maintained that it was not necessary to believe a single word by Candelaria to convict Jenkins.” This was because, he propounded, “Cesaria Navarro’s testimony also proved that he was guilty of, if not second-degree murder, at least manslaughter.” The prosecutor, however, felt that “Cesaria’s account corroborated the essential points of the testimony given by Candelaria” and Thom concluded with the observation that “the law protected the poor and the sinner as well as the innocent and the rich,” and the paper approvingly concluded that “all his reasoning was very elemental and skillful.”
With regard to the instructions, El Clamor provided much more detail, noting Hayes’ careful delineation of the degrees of homicide (manslaughter and second-degree and first-degree murder) and informing the jury “gentlemen: if you have a rational doubt as to which of these degrees he is guilty of as a criminal, he can only be sentenced to the lowest degree, which is manslaughter.” He added, moreover, that “if you have rational grounds to doubt that the testimony clearly demonstrates any guilt, the accused has the right to be released. For the jurist the key question was “can the act of killing be justified?” and he reviewed, as the Star paraphrased above, the delineation of what was justified in criminal and civil proceedings when it came to resistance against an officer, including Hayes’ spotlight on what would constitute a manslaughter verdict.
What the Star did not choose to excerpt from the instructions and El Clamor did was that Hayes informed the jury that “the Court will not make any comment on the testimony, with the exception of noting that although you will find a contradiction on some points, among the witnesses, the sum of their statements must be considered to know if they can agree on the main points.” He added that “the degree of credibility due to any witness is determined by you; and only you can completely reject a witness, according to your best judgment.” He continued by observing that “when the general character of a particular witness is attacked, it is an important question to find out whether it has been sustained in all the main points by other good witnesses.” This is what Thom latched onto in his last statements.
Hayes having finished, a deputy sheriff took the jury to a place where they could deliberate without interference by anyone, but it was all of fifteen minutes (though this was not unprecedented in the very brief trials of the day) before foreman Andrew J. King read out the simple verdict: Jenkins was not guilty. Instead of offering an editorial that excoriated the criminal justice system, though, Ramirez’ response was surprisingly moderated and conciliatory. He wrote that his reasons for putting so much of the trial coverage into the issue was to educate readers on the law and averred that they “can learn more by carefully reading this narrative than if they had twenty statutes before them to examine.”
Having provided the detailed coverage of the proceedings as he did, which is also a valuable service to those who have studied the case since, the young publisher, likening the trial to “a drama in the theater,” added
We leave our readers to make their own fair judgment as to whether the evidence was sufficient to convict the defendant. We have already expressed our opinion on this case. Now it is finished. Ruiz is in his grave; nothing will avail his eternal destiny to think ill of him by whose hand he succumbed, and whom a county jury has acquitted of all crime. The Constitution and the laws assure every man a trial by a jury, as the last resort between good and bad. The jury has given its decision; it is final for this world. This is how all good citizens should feel from now on; Let’s not think more about it, but to take an example, and sincerely hope that another similar thing will never happen again. No one will deny that it has had some bad effects on the community; but time will erase them; and all of us will once again live in harmony, each class working to firmly establish and perpetuate the fraternal sentiments that should reign in every well-ordered society. Let’s discard all feelings of pain from the past. Let’s see if each one of us can’t contribute something of goodwill to illuminate the future.
Yet, just several months later, after the January 1857 massacre of Sheriff James R. Barton and several of his small posse on the hunt for the Flores-Daniel gang, wanted for committing a killing and robberies at San Juan Capistrano, a series of lynchings and indiscriminate killings of Latinos suspected of either membership or association with the gang or criminal pasts took place that revealed the darkest underbelly of both the relations between the two main ethnic groups and the ease with which some locals would turn to so-called “popular justice.”
In nearly two years of witnessing the results, Ramirez would turn angry and bitter, even blaming “imbecile Californios” for allowing the bloodletting happen—it was small wonder that his paper, already struggling with readership and subscriptions among Latinos, being heavily supported by French residents thanks to the assistance rendered by Ramirez’ godfather, Jean Louis Vignes, folded at the end of 1859.
We can’t know what the thinking was by the Jenkins trial jury as they quickly determined that he was innocent of the charges brought against him. Did they believe he was in legitimate fear for his life or that Ruiz and Pollorena were a palpable threat? Was Pollorena’s purported bad character and questionable veracity vital in their decision? Did Navarro’s testimony, forced as it was by her arrest and after alleged interference by Pollorena, sway them? Was it that a white jury would not convict a white officer in the killing of a Latino man? These and other questions are obviously reasonable ones to ask, but, unfortunately, there can be no definitive answers, even if Judge Hayes seemed to signal his view that Jenkins at least committed manslaughter.
The freed constable ended up soon running for marshal and losing and happened to be among those engaging in a gun battle with the killer of Sheriff William C. Getman, gunned down on a Los Angeles street almost exactly a year after Barton was murdered. Later in life, Jenkins was involved in other acts of violence, including a feud in the Castaic area, north of Los Angeles, where he long resided. It seems safe to say he literally had a hair-trigger temper and that his “rashness” in killing Ruiz was a reflection of his own character.
How he got into the Temple family’s good graces, at least initially, is not clear, but he became the administrator of the estate of F.P.F. Temple after the former president of the failed Temple and Workman bank and country treasurer died in 1880. That quickly went awry and Temple’s family managed to have Jenkins removed, though he kept a deed box with Temple’s name ornately rendered on the lid and which was filled with receipts and other documents that were in the hands of Jenkins’ descendants and have recently been sold to antique paper dealers.
In later years, Jenkins forged a partnership with John H. Temple, one of F.P.F.’s children, as they looked to stake a legal claim on Alcatraz Island, a topic covered in detail in this blog, but that wound up floundering amid legal dust-ups, lost original documents, and a fair amount of wasted funds. Jenkins died, six decades after his killing of Antonio Ruiz, in 1916 at age 81 and, among others, was survived by his equally colorful younger brother, Charles, whose story has been detailed here, as well.