The Innocents (1964)
by Edward D. Radin

Excerpt from Chapter 10 on

John Fry

There is still another form of confession that can result in an injustice. This occurs when a lawyer advises a client to plead guilty, which in effect is a confession to the crime, even when the client insists that he is innocent. The counsel may be incompetent, lazy, or completely indifferent because the fee involved is not high enough for him to devote his time to the case. But there are occasions when the lawyer may feel that he is protecting the life of his client by advising him to plead guilty.

This happened to John Fry in San Francisco. He was arrested for the strangle-murder of Elvira Hays, whose body had been found in the bathroom of a Fourth Street hotel in August, 1958. Fry said he had been out with her the night of the murder but had left her in a restaurant because a swollen toe was bothering him, and he had gone, to his room. Police found a number of witnesses, all of whom said that they had seen Fry quarreling with the woman. Fry insisted the witnesses were mistaken, that the quarrel had taken place several days earlier, and that they had since made up.

Because Fry was without funds, a public defender was appointed to represent him. A public defender in California does not serve without fee; he receives a salary from the state and his office has funds to conduct an inquiry. Investigators for the office were unable to locate any witnesses to back up Fry's story. Therefore, the public defender felt it was his duty to point out to Fry that if he went on trial and was convicted of first-degree murder he faced death in the gas chamber, while if he pleaded guilty to manslaughter he would serve about ten years. With the witnesses ready to testify against him, conviction seemed certain. Even though he was innocent, Fry did plead guilty to manslaughter and he was sentenced to San Quentin.

Seven months after his guilty plea, Richard T. Cooper, a janitor, confessed that he had killed Mrs. Hays and another woman in the same hotel. Cooper later was executed. Fry received an unconditional pardon from Governor Brown, and the state in February, 1962, paid Fry $3,000 for his false imprisonment, even though he had pleaded guilty.