Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life of Gladys Towles Root

The Ultra-Speedy 'Divorce'

When Root began her law practice, her generous and adoring father made out a check that paid the rent on her office for six months. The office was in a poor neighborhood, only a few blocks from skid row.

Louis Osuna, a slightly built Filipino was out walking in the neighborhood and, thinking about his troubled marriage, when the heat got to be too much for him. He ducked into a building to escape from the sun. Divorce was on his mind since he had discovered that his wife was having an affair with another man. Osuna looked over the directory in the lobby of the building and saw Gladys Towles Root, attorney at law. He walked to her office and told the lady that he wished to divorce his wife. Root was delighted to get her first client.

The next day, Root got a phone call. It was Louis. Am I divorced yet? he naÔvely inquired.

The wheels of justice turn slowly, a patient Root responded.

The next day, Osuna again contacted his attorney. This time it was by telegraph and he was in the county jail. Osuna had caught his wife and her lover in bed together and shot at them. The boyfriend had escaped but the wife was killed. Louis told his lawyer that he killed his wife because the divorce was taking too long.

She noted that he had indeed sped things up.

Have you ever lost a case? the frightened killer asked the attorney.

No, Root truthfully replied without informing him that she had never tried a case before.

Louis Osuna was charged with first-degree murder and could have gotten the death penalty but Roots defense got the charge reduced to manslaughter. He served a brief prison term and was freed.

While behind bars, Osuna sung the praises of his attorney. He told his fellow prisoners that she would defend the poor for little recompense and indeed, Root often took criminal cases in exchange for a chicken, duck, or goose. A dinner of poultry for more-than-competent legal representation naturally endeared her to many on societys ragged edge. A skid row bard wrote the following poem in her honor.

Root de toot.
Root de toot.
Heres to Gladys Towles Root.
Her dresses are purple, her hats wide
Shell get you one instead of five.

Later, another verse would be added.

Root de toot.
Root de toot.
Heres to Gladys Towles Root.
Im here to do repentance,
She got me a suspended sentence.

California is a wonderfully diverse state of a traditionally diverse country. Perhaps that is why a Filipino figured in two of Roots most pivotal cases: her very first and one that changed constitutional law. A Filipino man came to Root in great distress because his white girlfriend was pregnant and the law forbidding interracial marriages meant he could not wed her. Root plunged into research into anti-miscegenation laws as well as racial definitions and genetics. She got the law struck down by the state Supreme Court but unfortunately this was in 1930, after all not on the grounds that such laws were per se unconstitutional but on the grounds that the Filipino race had been wrongly classified. However, the result for her client was happy: a legal marriage. Root herself was far from a racist. Unlike some other attorneys, she always accepted clients of all ethnic backgrounds. In 1948, a petition circulated to prevent the great musician Nat King Cole from buying a home in the exclusive area of Hancock Park where she lived in a mansion. . Root was one of the residents who refused to sign.

Chicago attorney Kirkpatrick W. Dilling worked with Root as an associate on many cases. According to Dilling, being a woman at a time when women lawyers were rare did not handicap Root to even the slightest degree. She could make hamburger out of the average man, he claimed. She was an absolute trial genius in my estimation. She could cross-examine people in her sleep. She had an instinct and went for the jugular.

Dilling recalled a case the pair tried in Tucson, Arizona that many people thought was a certain loser. Their client, Howard Inches, had a 57-count federal indictment against him. Among many other things, he was charged with securities violations and fraud. Root had a [fashion designer] with her when she rolled into town in a limousine, Dilling said. She had a car accident the day before the trial was to start and I asked for a continuance which the judge denied. She told a reporter, Mr. Dilling and I are going to try this case together and were going to get an acquittal. She showed up in court in her wheelchair. Much to everyones surprise, our client was acquitted on every count.

At a meeting with a client before a court appearance, Root had a standard question: What is your favorite color? Although Root would be known as the lady in purple because that was her favorite color, whatever a client said was his or her favorite hue would be the main color of the inevitably eye-catching garment Root wore to court.

Root gave herself a special incentive to victory. If she was satisfied with the way a case had turned out, she rewarded herself with a box of chocolates that evening. To make sure she could not cheat, Root had a maid keep the chocolate treasure trove in a place that she, the housekeeper, knew about and her employer did not.

Box of Chocolates
Box of Chocolates

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