Arbuckle’s lawyers as witnesses . . . for the prosecution?

On Saturday, April 8, which was a short session for the third and final Arbuckle trial now entering its third week, Assistant District Attorney Leo Friedman called Gavin McNab, Arbuckle’s lead attorney, to take the stand. According to the Associated Press reporter, McNab “absentmindedly” did so without being sworn in.[1] More accustomed to examining witnesses rather than being questioned as one himself, McNab was asked how he obtained the deposition of Mrs. Helen Madeline Whitehurst taken by Albert Sabath, the Chicago attorney.

Earlier in the week, she had taken the stand and claimed to have seen Virginia Rappe drinking in her Chicago cafés and her own home in 1914 and 1915, becoming ill and tearing off her clothes—the behaviors that she exhibited in Arbuckle’s hotel bedroom on Labor Day 1921.

During her examination, McNab confronted her about a discrepancy found in her deposition regarding how many times she saw Rappe fall ill in her home: a “number” of times versus only two.

Whitehurst claimed her deposition had been altered and McNab then offered the deposition as an altered document. This seemingly minor detail, however, prompted the prosecution to expose the true nature of Sabath’s relationship to the defense—as a purveyor of tainted evidence and witnesses all designed to damage the reputation of Virginia Rappe.

McNab said that Sabath wasn’t a defense attorney and that his office didn’t correspond with him. If Sabath had acted as a defense attorney, McNab said, those arrangements had been made “in the east,” adding that he didn’t know who sent him the deposition, stating that it merely came to him “from the east.”

The prosecution’s strategy here was simple: to reveal that Sabath had really been in the employ of the defense during the time that he had been commissioned by the court to take depositions in Chicago. In that capacity, Sabath should have been answerable to the court and expected to be impartial. Logically, such a strategy put jury members in the strange position that if any of them voted to acquit Arbuckle, it would be with the knowledge that there might have been false testimony presented. By placing the burden of guilt on the jury, Brady and his assistants hoped to bolster their case against Arbuckle made entirely on circumstantial evidence and also parry the defense’s attacks on Rappe’s character—to restore the victim to her victim status.

McNab expressed a certain plausible deniability by stating that his colleague on Arbuckle’s so-called “million dollar” defense team, Charles H. Brennan handled the “eastern agents” of the defense. But that was as far as Friedman got before McNab’s chief assistant, Nat Schmulowitz objected—and Judge Louderback sustained. McNab left the chair and Friedman called Brennan to the stand. He testified—this time under oath—that he knew Sabath, having met him in October 1921. He also admitted that Sabath handed him the deposition in Chicago in late February but denied that Sabath worked for the defense. In contrast to the AP Night Wire, Oscar Fernbach of the San Francisco Examiner reported that Brennan said that Sabath, “in the time of procuring a statement for the defense from Mrs. Helen M. Whitehurst, was not a commissioner of the court.”[2]

A cursory look at the reportage from October 1921 and February 1922 reveals that Sabath, indeed, had been working closely with the defense. This, of course, put Judge Louderback in a more uncomfortable position than the jury. The judge could now be seen as having favored the defense. He had commissioned a lawyer who obviously worked for Arbuckle’s defense since October if not earlier—and Sabath himself wasn’t the least bit covert about it. He had offered to defend Arbuckle at the third trial in the wake of the second trial. He had personally dispatched one of his Chicago witnesses for the defense, Nurse Virginia Warren, to San Francisco so that she was well prepared to take the stand and say that Rappe gave birth to a premature infant in 1908.

This small but bold move by the prosecution ended the rebuttal phase of the third Arbuckle trial. It was followed by a brief surrebuttal, in which Harry Barker, although sick from a cold or flu, repeated his testimony from November 1921, in which he, as Rappe’s former Chicago sweetheart, suffered her hysterics vis-à-vis a drink or two. Ironically, Brady and his associates were aware that Sabath was Barker’s friend, business partner, and fellow litigant in a long-standing lawsuit that already made its way to the California Supreme Court. But they had thus far made nothing of this curious connection. Time was running out. The public was impatient. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, if one adjusts for inflation, had been spent by the state to prosecute Arbuckle.

Gavin McNab (l to r) making a point at the defense counsel table to Milton Cohen, Roscoe Arbuckle, Charles Brennan, and Joseph McInerney (Newspapers.com)

[1] Associated Press Night Wire, in various newspapers, 9 April 1922.

[2] Oscar H. Fernbach, “M’Nab Poor Witness for Prosecution,” San Francisco Examiner, 9 April 1922, 2.

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