The Ordeal of David Lamson

Contemplating this case as a whole, the mind is not satisfied that the rule controlling in circumstantial evidence cases has been met as a matter of law…Every statement of the defendant, capable of verification, tends to support his claims. It is true that he may be guilty, but the evidence thereof is no stronger than mere suspicion.
~Justice John W. Preston writing for the majority in Lamson v. People

The freeing of David Lamson, after 30 of 36 jurors found him guilty of having slain his wife, was nothing else than spitting in the face of justice…California now blushes with shame. The releasing of Lamson was the most infamous miscarriage of justice in this history of this state.
~Woodland (California) Daily Democrat

There would be two ways to take this. I could brood and be embittered and let all the rest of my life be darkened and in a way determined by the last three years. Or I can get something positive out of it, something of value to me, to others maybe. It could make or break my life. I’m not going to let it break it.
~David Lamson

Decades before the Menendez brothers, years before O.J. Simpson, Stanford University executive David Lamson went on trial for the murder of his wife, Allene, in one of California’s earliest “Trials of the Century.” The Lamson murder case bears a striking resemblance to the Dr. Sam Sheppard case, and like the Sheppard murder, when all was said and done, the dispute about Lamson’s guilt or innocence remains an open question.
The first jury to hear the case found him guilty of first-degree murder and Lamson was sentenced to hang. The California Supreme Court overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial. The second group of jurors heard essentially the same facts but could not reach a verdict.
A third trial was ordered, but the case never went to the jury when some misconduct in the selection process tainted the case. A fourth trial was held, the same evidence presented, and another mistrial occurred thanks to a deadlocked jury.
District Attorney Fred Thomas decided to try the case a fifth time. During preliminary hearings, Thomas reconsidered and, to the surprise of everyone involved, threw in the towel.
Never acknowledging that Lamson might have been innocent of any crime, Thomas simply stated that he was of the opinion that no jury could be found that would be able to render any decision in the case.
“Up to the time of the discharge of the third jury, I firmly believed, and so did my assistant, that a jury could be had in this case that would agree on a verdict,” Thomas told the courtroom in a motion hearing before Judge J.J. Trabucco. “While the district attorney’s office may believe that the evidence was sufficient to convict, and a great majority of the jurors so believed, it failed to produce the necessary unanimous verdict….I am sorely convinced that no jury can so agree and if another trial is had, no agreement will be reached.”
The evidence Thomas considered sufficient to convict was entirely circumstantial, which the defense can defeat simply by offering plausible alternatives to the state’s theory of the crime. The facts of the case certainly allowed both sides to offer vastly different interpretations.
David and Allene Lamson were a handsome couple who had been married for four years, had a two-year-old daughter at the time of Allene’s death, and were prototypical yuppies. He enjoyed a prominent position at Stanford University Press, the publishing imprint of Stanford University. Allene was the executive secretary of the local Y.W.C.A. David came from a well-educated family of physicians, had dabbled in local theater as an actor and Allene was a successful Stanford graduate who came to California from Missouri.
By almost all accounts they were a close, loving couple that loved the outdoors and whose disagreements were no different than any other married couple’s. Others, however, contended that the couple sparred frequently and that David was bothered by Allene’s insistence on working outside the home, despite having a young child.
Allene Lamson’s diary, entered into evidence, gave no inkling that the couple was anything but loving. Other witnesses from “the best social circles” came forward to testify in court and in the press “to the cordial and apparently affectionate relationship between them, emphasizing especially defendant’s uniform kindness toward and consideration of his wife,” the appeals court record shows.
David Lamson’s 30-month ordeal began on Memorial Day 1933 when the body of Allene Lamson was found in the blood-spattered bathroom of the couple’s Palo Alto home. The back of her skull was smashed and the bathroom, a tiny 7-by-10 foot room crowded with a clothes hamper, closet, tub, basin, and toilet, was awash in blood. There was diluted blood in the water-filled tub.
David Lamson was the only person known to be in the house around the time Allene died. Their daughter spent the previous evening with her grandmother because the Lamsons had been invited to another couple’s home to play cards. There was no indication that night that the Lamsons were quarreling.
That night Allene, described later by David’s sister, a physician, as “something of a hypochondriac,” complained of an upset stomach and David decided to sleep in a bedroom used by a live-in nursemaid who was away for the weekend.
The prosecution would latch on to the fact that the Lamsons slept apart, and that there was a live-in nanny, as an indication of marital discord, but on the stand during his trials, David said he slept there simply because his wife was ill and a notorious light sleeper.
He told police that about 3:30 a.m. his wife called him and he attended her at that time, rubbing her back for several minutes and procuring some lemon juice and water for her, which was followed by a bowl of soup and sandwich. His wife’s condition settled and about 45 minutes later he returned to bed.
Rather early in the morning of Memorial Day, he arose and dressed to do some yard work. Lamson was an accomplished gardener, which would also factor in the state’s case for motive. He prepared his own breakfast and after leisurely lounging around for a while, went to work in the back yard about 7 a.m.
About an hour later he began burning weeds and trash in the backyard, starting a bonfire that became the keystone in the prosecution’s case against him. Over the course of the next several hours, David occasionally chatted with a neighbor, Helen Vincent, who later testified that there was nothing in David’s demeanor that indicated he was in any way upset. In other words, he gave off no outward signs that he had murdered or was planning to kill Allene. The prosecutors dismissed this as a testament to David’s training as an actor.
The prosecution argued it was sometime between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., when Allene’s body was discovered, that David killed his wife.
“To accept this, one must imagine that this rather academic young man, certainly with no previous experience in either crime or crisis…was simultaneously a consummate actor and a muddle-headed nincompoop,” wrote Oakland Tribune reporter Nancy Barr Mavity in a retrospective of the case published in 1950. “He dawdled around hoeing blackberries while time fled, making not the slightest gesture toward either concealment of the crime or his own safety.”
After working in the yard for a while, Lamson turned his attention to his wife.
“I went in and awakened Allene, drew her bath and prepared her breakfast in the kitchen,” David told police. “I shut off the water, told her that her bath and breakfast were ready, and went outside again.”
However, in his initial statement, David neglected to tell authorities that he picked up his diminutive wife and carried her to the bathroom. Again, the prosecution made a great deal of his “inconsistent” statements. In all of his statements in court, to the media, and to police, David said that he never saw Allene alive again after bringing her to the bathroom.
The Lamsons had placed their home on the rental market, hoping to head to the mountains for the summer, and at 10 a.m. a real estate agent arrived unannounced with a lady interested in taking a look at the place. Julia Place, the agent, rang the front bell but no one answered. Hearing activity in the backyard, she met David, who was stripped to the waist tending his fire.
“He told me to go back to the front of the house, saying he would go through the house and open the front door for me,” Place testified at David’s preliminary hearing. She explained that he told her he wasn’t sure if his wife was presentable and that he wanted to make sure she was.
It was then that David discovered his wife’s body in the bathtub.
“Something drew me to the bathroom,” he told police. “I saw my wife’s body hanging over the edge.”
By this time — just a couple of minutes after speaking with David in the backyard — Place had reached the front door, along with her client, Mrs. Alfred Raas. The two women heard a shout or a shriek come from inside the home.
“I heard a noise in the house, but I could not identify it or tell what might have made it,” Place testified.
Mrs. Raas told a similar story.
“I heard something that sounded like laughter, but it wasn’t laughter,” she testified. “It was a peculiar noise.”
Both women concurred that David threw open the front door in a highly agitated state. He was wearing a shirt or sweater that was covered in blood.
As is the case in most eyewitness accounts, the women disagreed as to what David said. This disagreement was another important discrepancy that both the prosecution and defense attempted to exploit.
“My God, my wife has been murdered!” Place recalled him crying out.
But Mrs. Raas recalled it differently.
“As nearly as I can remember his words, he said ‘My wife has been killed,’” she told the prosecutor.
During David’s first trial, Place, who went with David into the house and saw not Allene’s body but the blood outside the bathroom, recalled that David continued to assert Allene had been killed.
“Get the police to find the murderer,” she said he yelled. “Who could have done it? No one had anything against her.”
Place immediately began calling doctors, officers and an undertaker, by telephone. Mrs. Raas summoned neighbors who called police.
Before police could arrive and secure the area, David — and later the neighbors — severely disturbed what was later considered a crime scene. Prior to admitting Place, David, upon finding Allene’s body “hanging over the edge,” moved her, which he offered as an explanation of the blood on his shirt. He also had blood on his hands and face.
“After Mrs. Place was admitted, he returned to the bathroom and again had the body in his arms,” is how the California Supreme Court summarized the evidence. “When Mrs. Brown (a neighbor) arrived, defendant was still in the bathroom, with the body in his arms, calling upon his wife to speak to him and showing further outward evidences of deep-seated and demonstrative grief.”
Mrs. Brown contributed to the confusion by using a bath towel to try to sop up some of the blood in the bathroom until she was ordered to stop by police. An undertaker’s assistant also partially drained the tub before halted by investigators.
David, wearing his blood-covered clothes, also walked around the house, making any blood stains found outside the bathroom useless for forensic examination. There were splotches of blood outside the door and on the walls of the hallway and one spot on the trap door in the ceiling.
All of these facts made a forensic examination of the scene quite difficult.
“With blood on the floor and on the clothing of the defendant found in the hall, and placed there after discovery of the body, with people tracking in and out of the bathroom, and the spreading of papers and sheets on the floor, it is no wonder that spots of washed blood were found in various isolated places,” the high court wrote, dismissing the prosecution’s blood spatter evidence.
What was clear was that Allene had died because of massive trauma to the occipital region of her head (very generally the area on the back of our heads where the spinal cord attaches). The main wound was a horizontal laceration about five inches in length, which was intersected almost at the midpoint by a vertical cut of about three-and-a-half inches. Two smaller horizontal lacerations ran off bottom of the vertical cut. The area where the major cuts intersected was significantly depressed.
“To this should be added the presence of three small hemorrhage areas between the layers of tissue composing the scalp,” the California Supreme Court wrote in its review of the evidence. “Lastly, no other abrasions of the skin were found but there were three bruises, which may be material, and which are described as two spots over the anterior portion of the hip bones at the two prominent points.”
The blow or blows that caused the lacerations resulted in significant arterial bleeding. Arterial wounds frequently shoot the blood out a great distance in large amounts. To the untrained eye, this pattern can resemble the blood spatters thrown from a weapon being swung. However, when Mrs. Brown destroyed the patterns by cleaning the bathroom, and David moved the body from where it fell at the time of death, criminalists were only left with the wound pattern on Allene’s skull and the layout of the bathroom to attempt to recreate what happened that Memorial Day morning.
While investigating the scene, police noticed several “clues” that led them to believe that Allene had been murdered. Most importantly, they found a foot-long metal pipe at the bottom of the bonfire David had been stoking. They also found what were originally thought to be blood stains on the back porch, but none on the front porch — through which any intruder would have had to exit.
There was no blood found on the faucet of the tub, which also worked against David in the early days of the investigation. There was something on the iron pipe found in the fire, which presumptively tested positive for blood. However, presumptive tests look for a particular protein called heme which can be found in things as disparate as hemoglobin and horseradish. There was an insufficient amount to conclusively test, which meant that the substance on the pipe might simply have been vegetable matter or even rust.
Medical examiners working with the evidence returned a ruling of homicide. They based this ruling on the circumstantial evidence found at the time:

  • “Blood” on the back porch

  • “Blood” on the iron pipe

  • The blood spatter pattern in the bathroom

  • The lack of blood where Allene supposedly struck her head, and

  • The wound pattern on her skull

Police, faced with a homicide that occurred when just two people were at the scene of the crime, charged the only person who had means and opportunity — David Lamson. Motive, not necessary to prove guilt, would come later.
That motive was turned up by prosecutors when they learned that David had been been meeting and corresponding with a woman in Sacramento named Sarah Kelley. A garden columnist for a local newspaper, Kelley sent David poems that could be considered love poems, and on at least one occasion David sent her flowers. His expense account indicated trips to Sacramento when he was supposed to be elsewhere, and David recommended Kelley for an opening at the Stanford University Press.
Both Kelley and David strongly asserted that the relationship was purely professional and symbiotic. Kelley wanted to leave the newspaper business for more “serious” writing, and David was interested in using his gardening expertise to do some freelance writing.
Kelley was the second woman that police tried to link to David in a romantic way. The first, the Lamson’s attractive young nursemaid, turned out to be engaged to another man and was quickly dropped as “the other woman” by police.
Prosecutors also latched on to the fact that David and Allene frequently slept apart, which they claimed was an indication that their love had cooled.
In opening arguments, the state presented its theory that David and Allene had quarreled that morning, that he stormed outside and picked up the pipe, went back inside and struck the fatal blows, stripped off his bloody shirt, and went outside to dispose of the pipe in the bonfire.
The State would not speculate on why Lamson did not destroy his blood-soaked clothes.
David’s attorney was Edwin M. Rea, who at the beginning of the trial told the press that he expected full exoneration for his client.
“Lamson will be acquitted,” he said. “No jury will convict on the prosecution’s theory that Lamson’s love for his wife was frustrated by her feigning illness.”
Despite the other woman theory, the key information on which the prosecution relied was the forensic evidence gathered at the scene of the crime. Thus, the evidence at David’s trial in September 1933 remained entirely circumstantial, and as a result, the trial turned on the evidence of the experts.
“The life or death of David Lamson hung on two inanimate objects: the skull of his dead wife and a piece of iron pipe,” wrote reporter Nancy Barr Mavity. “The first must prove that Allene Lamson was the victim of a murderous attack…The second must prove it was the instrument of this attack, in the hands of David Lamson.”
Pathologist A.W. Meyer was the chief prosecution witness. In examining the scene and Allene’s wounds, Meyer concluded that there was evidence of a violent struggle preceding her death. He concluded that four blows had been struck and that the strikes could have been administered by almost anyone.
“A 14-year-old child could have done it,” he testified.
Meyer also indicated that a hemorrhage under Allene’s scalp was likely caused by someone pulling on her braided hair.
Two additional pathologists modified Meyer’s conclusions somewhat, but they both agreed that at least one blow was struck and that it would have taken considerable force to cause the fracture(s).
Rea managed to score some points by getting the state’s experts to concede that a fall in which Allene struck her head on the basin in the bathroom could have caused the same injury.
The prosecution would like to have introduced into evidence the “blood” spatters found on the back porch, but those spots turned out to be paint that matched the bassinet where the Lamson baby slept.
As a result, the prosecution’s case was simply that the nature of the wounds was indicative of homicide, that David was the only person who could have done it, and that he did it with the iron pipe in the bathroom.
The defense presented an equally strong case that Allene’s death was an accident. The most notable defense witness was Dr. E.O. Heinrich, a noted Berkeley criminalist who had been originally retained as an expert witness by the prosecution. However, as Heinrich looked into the case he because more convinced that Allene’s death was an accident.
Heinrich presented reasonable answers to most of the prosecution’s forensic claims.

  • The same pathologist who found traces of blood on the pipe was also the one who declared the varnish stains on the porch to be blood

  • Human blood could not be differentiated from animal matter after being subjected to the heat of a fire

  • No attempt was made by the prosecution to type the “blood” found on the pipe

  • There were bloodstains on the inside of the bathroom door, indicating that it was closed when hit by blood — an unlikely occurrence if David had been in the tiny room;

  • The pattern of blood on David’s shirt was consistent with someone who had picked up and cradled his wife

  • The amount of force required to dent in a skull to the extent Allene’s was wounded was nearly 600 pounds, which is all but impossible for a human to exert — but not for an immobile object like a basin.

Heinrich was prevented by the court from discussing experiments he had conducted in the bathroom that he believed showed conclusively Allene’s death was an accident. Using live models (who gamely suffered significant bruising), Heinrich demonstrated that is was possible for a person to slip while exiting the tub and bash her skull in the manner that was consistent with Allene’s injuries. Prosecutors strongly objected, point out that Heinrich had used live, conscious models falling at a controlled rate.
“The only possible way for the conditions to be approximated would be for Mr. Rea to take the responsibility for another homicide,” said prosecutor Herbert Bridges. “If he cares to do that, that is one thing. But if not, the experiment is meaningless.”
Rea protested that to prevent the testimony was to gut his case.
“A man’s life is at stake,” he said. “The prosecution has prevented us from putting on the very gist of our case.”
In the end, Judge R.R. Syer sided with the prosecution.
“You do not know the elements of the original occurrence,” he said. “Therefore you cannot introduce such an experiment.”
Based on all of the evidence from dueling experts, the case was submitted to the jury and David Lamson was convicted of first-degree murder. The sentence was automatically death by hanging.
That decision not to allow the Heinrich experiments would actually come back to haunt the prosecution after David was convicted by that first jury. The California Supreme Court held that by not allowing Heinrich to discuss his findings, the court abused its discretion because of the rule in circumstantial evidence cases.
“It … is elementary law that where the evidence is (circumstantial) it must be not only consistent with the hypothesis of guilt, but inconsistent with any other rational hypothesis,” the court wrote. Based on all of the evidence — including that not submitted, the appellate court found that the defense’s hypothesis was rational and that the evidence was not inconsistent with its theory.
David had been on death row for 13 months before the Supreme Court ordered a new trial, and would endure another two years in custody before being freed.
In the second trial four jurors held out for a not guilty verdict, and in his fourth trial, two jurors were the holdouts (recall that the third trial never went to the jury). Thus, 30 of 36 jurors who heard the case were convinced by the prosecution’s evidence.
Freed in 1936 after the prosecution opted not to go ahead with a fifth trial, David put the matter behind him and was accepted back into society with open arms. He remarried and continued to live in California until he died in 1975.