Erle Stanley Gardner’s “The Court of Last Resort”


College newspaper editors are notoriously known for having an independent streak about them. They often write or have one of the reporters write a highly shocking story or at least highly unusual to grab everyone’s attention in an effort to not only make a name on campus, but to outdo what other college papers across the country come up with.

The faculty adviser does like to know what’s going on, and running the story in front of him/her makes for good public relations with them further down the road. Our UAB faculty adviser thought I had lost my mind.

I was going to write a story about the City Editor of the Birmingham News, the largest circulation paper in the state of Alabama. I’m not sure what our faculty adviser thought, perhaps that I would be laughed out of the state by the entire Editorial Board of the Birmingham News.

Of course college editors who are just entering the rim of journalism have one other trait. They just don’t realize how dumb they are.

I picked up the phone and called the City Editor of the Birmingham News, Clancy Lake. Maybe he was having a good day, or maybe I was going to write about something he was very passionate about, but he said come on down to the newspaper. I told our UAB faculty adviser. I think she thought both Clancy and I had lost our minds.

Clancy had become convinced that a soldier who lived in Ensley, Alabama, I believe, and had been convicted of killing a young girl was innocent. The murder took place, according to court testimony, when he was home on leave. The location of the murder was an outlying community.

Clancy, much like me, although in a much better position than I was, picked up the phone and called “The Court of Last Resort”. The “Court” probably only received a thousand requests a week, and the chances of Clancy succeeding in getting them to listen was probably about as good as a single ant trying to transport an entire piece of bread home in one trip. But he caught somebody’s ear. I don’t know whom.

“The Court of Last Resort”, as I recall, consisted of four main principals. Erle Stanley Gardner, who somehow found time away from writing Perry Mason novels, a highly regarded NYC private investigator, another person who today would be regarded as a forensics expert, and I can’t remember the specialty of the fourth person. Should the “The Court of Last Resort” sound familiar there were 26 TV episodes by that name that aired in 1957-1958 starring Lyle Bettger. Whether this case ever made TV I don’t know. I can’t recall the name of the soldier, which would have identified the TV version.

“The Court of Last Resort” sent their human bloodhounds down to Birmingham. Whether Erle Stanley Gardner was among them Clancy didn’t say. They had to dig for a while, but found that the two eye witnesses in the case were mistaken about the day they saw the soldier. The crime actually took place the day after they saw him, and the soldier had returned to his base at that time, and could not have possibly done it.

Judges take a hard look at evidence to declare someone innocent after a jury has already convicted them. Perhaps the misidentification of the days was sufficient for a finding of innocent, or perhaps with the high-powered name of Erle Stanley Gardner saying this person is innocent when the judge might have been a fan of Perry Mason was a factor, I don’t know. But he went free. I don’t think they ever caught the killer.

I wrote the story, and Clancy got a copy of it. A City Editor is a city editor because at times he takes out that red marker and points out to humble reporters that their journalistic education was a course or two short of being complete. He does spend most of his time pulling the paper together for that day, relying on others on his staff to use their red markers.

I fully expected Clancy to call me down to the Birmingham News, and not only show me the red marks he had made on my story, but to sign it with his initials, something I could frame, and hang on the wall.

Clancy was too big a man for that. He called me, and said he liked the story. I thought he was being nice, and that was a bunch of BS.

However later I talked to someone else at the Birmingham News I knew, and Clancy did indeed like the story, even went around showing it to seasoned veterans who probably said under their breath, “Yeah, sure.”

About then reality set in for me, and the enormity of my stupidity caught up with me. If picking up the phone and calling Clancy Lake, the City Editor of the largest newspaper in Alabama and telling him who I was, wasn’t the dumbest thing in the world, then I had no idea what was.

My faculty adviser stared at me, and didn’t say a word. Of course being able to stack additional dumbness on top of the original dumbness I had, I said to my faculty adviser, “Wait until you see what’s next.” I can’t remember whether she resigned or not.

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