Coke & John Brite

Siskiyou County, California
Date of Alleged Crime:  August 30, 1936

Coke and John Brite, brothers, were convicted of the murders of deputy sheriffs Martin Lange and Joseph Clarke, as well as the murder of Captain Fred Seaborn, a U.S. Navy officer.  The Brites, who were gold prospectors, returned to a cabin on their rented land, where their parents stayed, and then headed out again.  At nightfall they set up camp on the land of a neighbor, B. F. Decker, and went to bed.  Two intruders then entered their camp, another neighbor, Charley Baker, and his friend, Fred Seaborn.  At trial, Baker alleged they were looking for a strayed horse that Baker owned.  It was later learned that Baker had been using the cabin on the Brites' property for rent-free storage and had motive to drive the Brites from their land.  Baker and Seaborn picked a fight with the Brites, which proved to be a mistake as the Brites made quick work of them.  Baker then went to a judge and talked him into issuing warrants charging the Brites with assault.

Baker got the deputy sheriffs to depart from normal procedure and serve the warrants by sneaking into the Brites' camp the same night at 1 a.m.  Later, the brothers said they fought for their lives, thinking Baker had brought a gang to attack them.  Neighbors reported hearing a “roar of gunfire.” The deputies and Seaborn ended up dead, but Baker escaped unharmed.

Following the killings there was great local sentiment against the Brites.  A posse was sent to find them with orders to “shoot on sight and shoot to kill.” Even if the brothers escaped the posse, it seemed most likely they would be lynched.  After interviewing Baker and other witnesses, the district attorney, James Davis, did not like what he was hearing.  He concluded that even if everything Baker had told him was the truth, the brothers had acted in self-defense.  Davis then told the Brites' parents that he would personally assure their sons' safety if they could turn themselves in at a prearranged time and place.  Davis did not see how the parents could get word to their sons with the posse roaming around, but sure enough the Brites showed up as arranged.  The Brites got in the back seat of the DA's car, a blanket was thrown over them, and Davis and a friend spirited them out of the county to the safety of Folsom prison.

Davis refused to prosecute the brothers.  However, a grand jury indicted them and appointed a special prosecutor.  The Brites were convicted of first-degree murder and initially sentenced to death.  Baker gave many inconsistent and contradictory statements about the night of the killings.  However, all his stories indicated that the deputies successfully snuck up on the Brites and were on top of them, clubbing them with blackjacks.  It was not clear how the Brites could have resisted.  The brothers did not remember anything about the killings.  They only remembered the initial clubbing and finding dead bodies around them later.  According to a neighbor, B. F. Decker, who visited the brothers immediately after the shootings, John Brite appeared to have been clubbed somewhat senseless as he had no idea who Decker was, while Coke Brite seemed to be a little clearer in his mind.

The case later came to the attention of a non-government program called The Court of Last Resort in which wrongfully convicted prisoners' cases were studied and reported on in Argosy magazine.  In its investigation the Court found critical evidence that Baker never mentioned.  The brothers had a good-sized dog with them named Smoky.  Both the Brites and Decker stated that the dog was in the Brites' camp.  Decker distinctly remembered the dog barking shortly before the shooting.  It was a peculiar growling bark that a dog makes when it is engaged in some sort of struggle.

Deputy Clarke's body was found in a prostrate position with his rump higher than his head.  The bottom of his coat was pulled over his head.  His fully-loaded gun was holstered and he had a blackjack in his hand.  How he got in this postion was never satisfactorily explained.  It would appear that the dog grabbed the back of Clarke's coat while he while he was blackjacking one of the Brites.  The dog brought Clarke to his knees and pulled the end of the coat over his head.  In an attempt to stop the dog, someone fired a shot at him.  Since the Brites would not have shot at their own dog, the shooter must have been a member of the Baker party.  However, the shooter missed hitting the dog and instead hit Deputy Clarke.  The bullet entered the base of Clarke's spine and exited out his right shoulder, killing him instantly.

At the Brites' trial it was alleged that all bullets fired in the melee were fired from the Brites' rifle.  However, recovered shell casings indicate that only two bullets were fired from the rifle.  In addition, the base of the rifle was used as a club, indicating the Brites had run out of ammunition.  Only the bullet that hit Seaborn and the bullet that hit the leg of Deputy Lange could have come from the Brites' rifle.  At trial the Brites were convicted of first-degree murder for firing two shots though Deputy Lange's forehead as he lay on the ground.  However, if Lange had been shot on the ground, the bullets would have burrowed into the ground from the exit wounds in his head.  The prosecution extensively searched for these bullets but never found them.  It withheld this information from the defense.  Besides the rifle, the Brites reportedly had an automatic pistol, although the pistol was not recoved.  Evidence indicates that another shot, from a rifle, had been fired from outside the Brites' camp towards the location of the Brites.

After Argosy magazine printed its investigation of the Brites' case, it became clear to authorities that the brothers could not be guilty of first-degree murder.  In Sept. 1951 the Brites were released on parole.  [6/08]

References:  Court of Last Resort, Sacramento Bee, People v. Brite

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Northern California Cases, Self-Defense Cases, Police Officer Murder Cases, Triple Homicide Cases, Favorite Case Stories