ABA Journal: Witness for the Defense

Writers rarely call us touting stories they wrote themselves. But Richard Fricker helped get a man off death row in Oklahoma, and he wanted us to know about it.

Fricker’s piece on Adolph Munson ran in Chicago’s ABA Journal back in December 1993. Fricker spent a year investigating the murder for which Munson was convicted in 1984, and just as he was wrapping up his reporting a state judge set aside the conviction–the first time in Oklahoma’s history that a trial judge had overturned a death sentence from the bench.

Fricker supposes his nosing around had something to do with this dilatory concern for justice. “It’s a small area,” he said, speaking of Oklahoma City and parts west, where the murder of Alma Hall took place. “People know when someone’s turning over garbage cans. When you walk into the Glancy motel and start asking questions, you can rest assured when you leave someone’s picking up a telephone.”

Fricker’s business at the Glancy motel in Clinton, Oklahoma, was to ask former manager Gerald Klemke about an earring that allegedly turned up in Munson’s room there, an earring worn by Alma Hall, who was a night clerk at a local convenience store. Despite what he’d testified at Munson’s trial, Klemke couldn’t say where that earring actually came from. “I don’t know,” he told Fricker. “If a guy were hypnotized again . . . maybe, maybe not.”

Last month an Oklahoma appeals court affirmed the trial judge’s ruling by a vote of 5-0. The judge’s first reason given for ruling against the state had been its failure to reveal that before Klemke testified he’d been hypnotized by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. There were plenty of other reasons. The state hadn’t bothered to turn over exculpatory evidence, to the tune of some 165 photographs and 300 to 500 pages of documents.

We won’t try to tell in one page the story the ABA Journal told in 11. But trust us that it shredded the case against Adolph Munson, a black mope guilty of passing through Clinton at the wrong time. Not only was Hall most likely not murdered by Munson, she probably wasn’t even murdered in Oklahoma–the body was found 120 miles west of Clinton in a Texas field. Oklahoma retained jurisdiction because of a cockamamy death theory advanced by a corrupt pathologist who’d soon be indicted and plead guilty to seven felony charges.

Originally the police suspected a no-account wanted in Texas and Florida. But the police and prosecutors promptly forgot about him when Munson surfaced. Fricker wrote that a police lieutenant lied to Munson’s attorney, saying the original suspect couldn’t have murdered Hall because he was in prison at the time.

“They’re planning on retrying Munson,” Fricker told us the other day. “I don’t know what they plan to use as evidence. The appellate court opinion pretty much destroyed their case. [But] prosecutors don’t like to admit mistakes. They may consider it a point of honor.”

Do you have a low opinion of prosecutors? we asked.

“Not generally. But I feel the office is grossly misused. When it goes from being the people’s attorney to being a mission, that’s when you get into problems. Sort of like the young cop who goes out to protect the people, and you talk to him four or five years later and he’s convinced everyone’s a criminal, but he just hasn’t figured out which crime they’ve committed yet.”

Fricker went on, “We’re into a critical era in jurisprudence. Everyone’s talking about cutting down on the appeals process, and every newly elected Republican governor can’t wait to kill someone. Most of them have never been in the military and have never done a man thing in their life. By paying someone else to kill someone in a cage, it somehow strengthens their person and gets them into heaven quicker. Under a lot of the proposed appellate procedures Munson would be dead now.”

We’re told Oklahoma’s major papers all but ignored the Adolph Munson saga, although one radio personality in Oklahoma City and the fortnightly Oklahoma Observer took up the cause. The ABA Journal was far from being the story’s natural home. Times are changing, but professional societies have long favored dry, cautious journals that neither entertain nor trouble their diverse members, who in the ABA’s case total 380,000.

Fricker’s censure of some Oklahoma lawmen did not make waves. But in 1990 he profoundly troubled the waters between the ABA and the U.S. Department of Justice, and brought down on the magazine the fury of the prosecutorial bar. Fricker’s subject was America’s vaunted War on Drugs. His focus was one Jose Rafael Abello, the sole Colombian extradited to this country and tried for drug dealing.

“When you look at that case,” recalls Gary Hengstler, then and now the journal’s editor, “here was a guy charged in a conspiracy to bring drugs into Oklahoma. No drugs were ever brought in–there was only a discussion, and he wasn’t even part of the discussion. When he realized what they were talking about he walked out. Everybody else pleaded guilty and is now out of prison. He pleaded innocent and got 30 years. And we said, ‘Wait a minute! If this is what the war on drugs is about it’s wrong.'”

The head of the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice wrote protesting Fricker’s article. The federal judge in Tulsa who tried Abello did the same. The U.S. attorney and assistant U.S. attorney in Tulsa both were heard from, and from within the ABA the ad hoc prosecutors’ committee denounced the article. Although the journal stood by its story, the mere act of printing it is still remembered in some quarters as a kind of intramural betrayal.

Fricker isn’t writing for the journal anymore, and he thinks that since his Munson piece the tone of the magazine’s shifted.

“I won’t say bad or worse–I’ll say different,” he told us. “I think a lot of publications in the United States presently are looking for a somewhat glossier look at the news, the quick in and out, the sort of magazine version of USA Today. But when you do that you don’t leave a lot of room for deep ponderances. And perhaps people don’t want to ponder much. But the stuff is still out there. It’s happening every day in the courts across America.”

Other editors have publishers. Hengstler has a 12-person board of editors to answer to, and powerful readers with a proprietary attitude across the land.

“We’re in the process of trying to change somewhat the editorial focus,” he said, agreeing with Fricker up to a point. “We’re writing all of our articles from the standpoint of mainstream journalism. We don’t try to focus our articles from an ABA policy point of view. Among the [new] mix would be the occasional investigative piece.”

Has he run into opposition?

“Not so much today as when we first started. Back in ’92, I believe, we ran an article that in effect said that if one of the major goals of the association is the advancement of women and minorities in the profession, why is it in our own bar association we have fewer women in leadership positions than in 1985? Some of the leaders of the ABA did not like the fact we put the spotlight on our own organization. I got some criticism for last August’s issue, where a headline was ‘Greed, Ignorance and Overbilling.’

“I started here in ’86 as news editor,” he told us. “I can show you the cover then, which shows an attractive young woman in a gray business suit looking at a fictional newspaper. And there’s a headline, ‘Lawyers Do Good.’ The major article was a reprint of a Warren Burger speech to the ABA. What’s the point of putting out a magazine if a significant number of readers push it away?”

Hengstler, remarkably, can provide precise pushing-away numbers. “We’ve raised our readership 20 minutes on the average,” he said. “When I started as editor in ’89 our average readership time was 33 minutes and it’s now 53 minutes.”

But it isn’t reading time Fricker cares deeply about–it’s muckraking. The Journal might continue to make itself more pertinent and engrossing, but nonetheless choose to do less of what matters most: devoting soul and purse to stories such as a capital case in Oklahoma.

News Bites

In a possible prelude to a Solomonic verdict that finds O.J. Simpson guilty if you want him to be and innocent if you don’t:

Chicago Tribune, January 21: “LOS ANGELES–Judge Lance Ito appeared to deal O.J. Simpson’s defense another setback Friday with a ruling that made it extremely difficult for his lawyers to introduce evidence of alleged racial prejudice on the part of a key police detective.”

New York Times, same day: “LOS ANGELES, Jan. 20–In a victory for lawyers defending O.J. Simpson against murder charges, the judge in the case today approved their request that the jury should be allowed to hear a racial epithet used by a crucial witness in the case.”

Two stories totally unaware of each other’s existence:

From a Steve Neal column in the Sun-Times: “Ald. Margaret Laurino . . . the former vice chairman of the Illinois Democratic party, is facing a half-dozen challengers in her bid for her first full term. . . . Her father, former Ald. Anthony C. Laurino, 84, was the dean of the City Council when he retired last fall. . . . [Opponent Anthony Fornelli] appears to be guilty of overkill in challenging Laurino’s integrity and linking her with ghost payrollers. Laurino is a woman of character and is among the harder-working members of the City Council.”

Seven pages later in the same paper: “Marie A. D’Amico covered her face and sobbed Thursday as she was sentenced to a year in prison for being a ghost payroller in three local government jobs. The 53-year-old daughter of former Ald. Anthony C. Laurino (39th) also was fined $10,000 and ordered to make restitution . . . for paychecks she collected while doing virtually nothing. . . . [U.S. district judge George Lindbergh] identified the former alderman, 83, as ‘apparently’ being responsible for getting his daughter no-work jobs.”

From the Tribune’s Evening Health page:

“GETTING FIT: If you walk to become fit, you have to move fast. . . . You can increase your walking speed by taking longer steps or moving your feet faster.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.