In December 1955, local murder trial kept viewers glued to TVs

For a few days in December 1955 Central Texans were glued to a televised murder trial with a...
For a few days in December 1955 Central Texans were glued to a televised murder trial with a cast of colorful characters including a female wrestler, and an attorney who became a lawyer at 19 without going to law school. (Buddy Bostick/KWTX photo/file)(KWTX)
Published: Dec. 6, 2019 at 5:50 PM CST
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For a few days in December 1955, Central Texans set Christmas preparations aside to watch a historic televised murder trial with a cast of colorful characters including a female wrestler and an attorney who'd practiced law since he was 19, but who never went to law school.

KWTX made history by broadcasting the four-day trial from Dec. 6 to Dec. 9, 1955 live from beginning to end.

But few remember the conviction in that case was overturned just months later after an appeal filed by a prominent Waco lawyer.

Harry Leonard Washburn was transferred to Waco from San Angelo in December 1955 but only for his first-degree murder trial.

Before the case was finally resolved, Washburn would be tried and convicted of first-degree murder, that conviction would be overturned, he’d be retried and convicted again on the same charge in a different county, and this time his appeal would be denied.

Waco attorney C.S. “Shuford” Farmer, (1893-1982) served as Washburn’s first chair defense counsel and Thomas Paul (Tom) Moore, (1918-2017) then McLennan County District Attorney, was first chair for the state.

Farmer acted as Washburn's lawyer through most of that journey.

Farmer, born May 19, 1893 in Batesville, Miss., was the first McLennan County lawyer inducted into the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer Association’s Hall of Fame in 1984.

The only other McLennan County attorney ever inducted is the late Charles McDonald, Sr., one of the original organizers of TCDLA.

” The camera…stayed on all day until we recessed”

Judge Drummond W. Bartlett (1895-1963), the judge sitting in the 54th District Court, agreed to accept the trial on a change of venue from Tom Green County and then, in a nutshell, agreed with KWTX-TV General Manager M.N. “Buddy” Bostick that Washburn’s should be the first U.S. murder trial broadcast “from gavel to gavel” on television.

Truth be known, Bartlett and Bostick had been discussing televising a court trial for some time, but the Washburn case presented itself as an excellent opportunity.

Microphones were hidden around the courtroom, a camera was set up in the balcony out of sight of the jury, lights upgraded from 50- to 100-watt where necessary and local television commercials were canceled in favor of unending, uninterrupted coverage for four days.

“The camera went on when the judge called court to order every morning and stayed on all day until we recessed,” Moore recalled in a 1970 interview with the Baylor University Oral History Project.

Washburn was found guilty, the televised trial made history, courtroom lawyers became local television personalities and talk around town was all about it.

One account in Waco Today reads: "From Dec. 6-9, 1955, as the story goes, one could have ‘shot a cannon down Austin Avenue and not hurt a soul’ because the normally frenzied Christmas shoppers were all inside stores watching the trial on TV."

Moore recalled a similar comment from the general manager at Waco’s Goldstein-Miguel Department store who said: “If you ever decide to do this again, don’t do it two weeks before Christmas. You’re killing my sales.”

“My God! That’s the wrong one!”

But from the standpoint of the law, it was a far more interesting case than what viewers saw on the TV screen

Washburn and a co-defendant, parolee Andrew Nelson, had been arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the car-bombing death of Washburn’s ex-mother-in-law, but she hadn’t been the intended target, her husband had.

Harry E. Weaver went out to his green 1954 Chevy on a crisp, breezy January 1955 San Angelo morning to move some tools so his wife could use the car and normally, he’d have started it up for her, but that morning, as the court’s record shows, an immediate “call of nature drove him back inside the house.”

While he was indisposed, his wife, Helen Harris Weaver, 51, went outside, got in the car and within milliseconds of engaging the starter on the floor, both she and the inside of the car were engulfed in flame by a huge fireball caused by the explosion of several sticks of dynamite that had been placed under the hood.

News reports from the incident say the force of the blast threw engine parts as far as a block away.

Some three hours later that day and about 400 miles away Washburn was driving with a friend when he heard news of the explosion on the radio.

Testimony later in court showed Washburn exclaimed: “My God! That’s the wrong one!.”

The friend was Nelson, who knew exactly what Washburn was talking about since it was he who showed Washburn how to rig dynamite to a car’s ignition.

The trial lasted four days and had all the earmarks of great television because testimony from the state was solicited from several colorful “thug-type characters” from the slums of Houston, a female wrestler and several other “off-the-radar” characters, Moore would recall years later.

Evidence presented to the 10-man, two-woman jury was “quite interesting, quite interesting,” Moore said.

In the end, Washburn was assessed a life prison term, but Farmer took note of an issue during the trial that ultimately resulted in Washburn’s verdict being overturned less than a year later.

The appeals court’s judgement said: “The trial court committed error in permitting the state to call the witness Nelson, a co-defendant, to the stand and require him to claim his privilege against self-incrimination and refuse to testify in the presence of the jury.

“Such refusal to testify was prejudicial because it could be used as an incriminating fact against the appellant,” the reversal said.

"Unless the witness has agreed to turn state's evidence, the prosecution ought not to place him on the stand; to do so and wring from him a refusal to testify, affording to the jury an opportunity to consider the refusal as a circumstance of guilt, has been said to be ‘certainly prejudicial.’

“For the errors pointed out the judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded,” the justices wrote.

“To hold that the conduct of the state in propounding the questions to the witness Nelson was not error would require that we overrule the cases holding to the contrary.

“We are constrained to conclude that a correct conclusion was reached originally,” the court said.

Washburn was retried on the first-degree murder charge in 1957 in Dallas County where a jury again found him guilty and handed down a prison term of 99 years.

He died Dec. 31, 1979 at 63, still behind bars.

”The one-armed bandit”

Farmer had legacy enough with the Washburn case, but his impact on Texas criminal law went far deeper than that.

“I didn’t know him. I was just getting started,” long-time Waco attorney William “Bill” Vanatta said.

“But back then there were stories about Shuford, what a fine man and fine attorney he was.

“He was well known all over Texas as an outstanding criminal defense lawyer but I think his real expertise was in appeals,” Vanatta said.

“I think I tried one case against him while I was an assistant district attorney,” retired 54th District Judge George Allen said of Farmer.

“I don’t remember enjoying it a lot,” Allen said.

“I know he was hired by lots of really high-profile law firms because he could identify and preserve error in trial better than anybody I ever saw,” Allen said.

A November 1979 article in Voice for the Defense authored by the late Dallas attorney Charles W. Tessmer said Farmer “at the time of his death had reversed more Texas cases than any living man.

“The actual count was forty-one,” the Tessmer article said.

History shows the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals average of reversals to affirmations is one in 10.

“There were two lives saved from death in the electric chair, and over 2,000 years (saved wrongly convicted defendants) as a result of the forty-one victories,” Tessmer said of Farmer’s record.

“Many times I heard the story about his argument before the (Texas) Court of Criminal Appeals when he told the court ‘There are so many errors in this case it could reverse Niagara Falls,’” Vanatta said.

Tessmer said that’s true. Farmer said that.

Farmer attended Draughan's Business College in Fort Worth and later moved to Waco in 1911 where he signed on as a stenographer for American Amicable Life Insurance Company while "reading" law in the law office of "Daddy" Joe Taylor.

Farmer never went to law school.

He was admitted to the Bar in 1912 at the age of 19, having had his age disqualification removed so he could take the state required Bar examination.

Farmer served in the Judge Advocate General Department of the U.S. Army at Camp McArthur, in Waco, until the end of World War I.

He lost his left arm in an automobile accident while returning from Austin where he had just argued a successful appeal, Tessmer wrote.

“When he revived from the anesthetic, he demanded to know where his severed arm was.

“The doctor asked why he was so concerned (and) Farmer said ‘I don’t care about the arm, but there was a diamond ring on my finger and I want it back.’”

After the incident fellow lawyers began calling Farmer the “one-armed bandit” and “This was appropriate because he stole so many guilty verdicts by his superior knowledge of the law on appeal,” Tessmer wrote.

“His reputation was so well known that prosecutors and judges made a great effort to allow no error to creep into the trial.”

Farmer always said he preferred a guilty verdict and a successful appeal over an acquittal because acquittals were just words that soon disappeared forever.

Framer’s philosophy: “Even if the case is a major one and gets much newspaper publicity, it is soon forgotten.

“An appellate victory has your name on it and is there forever,” he said, “Today's newspaper lights tomorrow's fire.”

Tessmer recounted an incident after Farmer won a wrongly-convicted man’s freedom from a death sentence when the lawyer and his client were riding to Farmer’s Waco office from West Texas.

“The conversation turned to Farmer's two successful appeals of Jim Thomas' convictions for murder. The first trial resulted in a death penalty. The second trial was better, only a life sentence was assessed. Thomas' case had just been dismissed and he was a free man for the first time in nearly four years,” Tessmer wrote.

“Farmer asked Thomas if he was satisfied with the legal services.

“The answer was ‘yes’, then Farmer asked, ‘Jim, would you kill me for money?’”

Tessmer wrote: “Thomas mused the question for a time and replied, ‘Yes, but it would take a lot of money, and I would give you a chance to outbid ‘em.’”

Farmer suffered a stroke in 1968 and died Dec. 11, 1972 at age 79.

”Ladies themselves may regret it later if they get the right."

It was one of Farmer’s cases and a subsequent appeal in that case that ultimately cleared the way for women to serve on Texas juries and grand juries after that issue weaved its way through the Texas Supreme Court, although at first Farmer opposed the idea.

The high court, in 1921, threw out seven convictions from McLennan County because Farmer, and other local lawyers, complained to the justices that two women had served on the grand jury that had indicted their clients.

In his message to the court Farmer pointed out the Texas Constitution specified that juries "shall be composed of twelve men," and that “McLennan County had made the ‘mistake’ of allowing women onto a grand jury in 1921,” even though both were Waco residents, one the wife of a lawyer.

Then District Judge Richard I. Munroe, who many said was thinking ahead of the times, had placed two women on the grand jury.

In their response the justices wrote: "To hold that a grand jury may be composed partly of men and partly of women would necessarily imply with the same logic, or want of logic, we could also hold that it might be composed of twelve women," the court wrote.

The Bell County district attorney at the time expressed his displeasure with the idea: “Careers and other hindrances of normal home life for women have contributed enough to divorce without giving wives and mothers another distraction such as jury service."

Just before the referendum ballot, Farmer said he no longer objected to women serving on juries but added that "ladies themselves may regret it later if they get the right."

More than three decades later the Texas Legislature would amend the state constitution to allow women to serve on juries and grand juries after the referendum vote tallied 237,078 to 175,539 for the amendment.