Photograph by Con Keyes / Los Angeles Times
Convicted killer L. Ewing Scott, 1980, at the age of 83.
In 1986, bedridden, frail and slowly dying in a Silver Lake convalescent home,
89-year-old Leonard Ewing Scott agreed to see a visitor, Times reporter
David Johnston. Scott had been freed from San Quentin in 1978 after
serving 20 years, released without supervision because the
prisoner–one of the oldest in the state’s penal system–refused to
agree to parole as it would imply that he had truly killed his wife,
Evelyn, in 1955.
Johnston was running down details for a story about new book. It
seemed that where all the investigators had failed, a young writer
named Diane Wagner had gotten a tape-recorded confession in 1984 for a
manuscript she was writing, "Corpus Delecti."
Scott told her that he killed his wife by striking on the head with a
rubber mallet, wrapped the body in a tarp and buried it near Las Vegas.
The reporter asked Scott if he knew Wagner. Of course, said Scott, who was sometimes disoriented and edging toward senility, she
was his third wife. In fact, he told another reporter, they went on a
honeymoon to South America.
Had he seen the book, Johnston asked. No.
Johnston read the transcript of the confession as the convicted killer
lay in bed, eyes fixed on his guest. Scott started to say something,
"What do you want?" Scott asked.
What made him acknowledge the killing after all these years?
"Acknowledge it? I’d be a damn fool to acknowledge it–they never found the body."
As far as the California Department of Corrections was concerned, Scott
was freed in 1978, but he remained in a prison of his own–a prison of
denial–for the rest of his life.
Officials had tried to release him in 1974, but he wouldn’t leave. Not
that he didn’t want to get out, for he spent most of his days in his 4
1/2-foot by 9-foot cell typing letters and legal appeals. They never
found the body, he insisted, as he had since first fell under suspicion
in his wife’s disappearance.
More important, during the trial, prosecutor J. Miller Leavy hammered
away at Scott for failing to testify. It was proof, Leavy insisted
again and again, that Scott was guilty and afraid to take the stand. In
a 1965 ruling in the case of Griffin vs. California, the U.S. Supreme
Court found that such remarks violated the 5th Amendment. But the court
did not make the ruling apply retroactively to cases such as Scott’s.
As far as the state was concerned, he had no grounds for an appeal. He continued his legal fight, but without success.
Then, in the fall of 1974, when he was 78, the state attempted to parole him for the first time.
"They pulled out a piece of paper and said, ‘Here, sign this,’ " he
said. "I read it over and said, ‘From just what in the hell do you
propose to parole me? You know I’m being held here illegally, without a
valid conviction.’ Well, they were flabbergasted. They’re all used to
guys saying, ‘Yes sir, no sir, whatever you say, sir.’ But I won’t do
The state made a second attempt to parole him in early 1978. Again, he turned it down.
A few weeks later, he sent a letter to Times reporter Gene Blake, who covered the trial in 1957.
"I told you some time ago that you would be the first to be given
information when I leave this hellhole. I always try to abide by my
promises," Scott wrote.
After refusing to be "suckered into accepting a parole," Scott said, prison officials told him he was being released. He slowly cleaned out his cell, which was filled with 500 pounds of legal files.
On March 17, 1978, 81-year-old Leonard Ewing Scott limped out of San
Quentin, leaning on a cane after breaking his hip in a fall, and still
wearing his prison denims with $200 from the state in his pocket. As he
was released to some friends who ran a mobile ministry for truck
drivers, Scott said his first act of freedom would be to sue his wife
for divorce. She was still alive, he insisted, and had been arrested
twice in Mexico for drunk driving. His first meal after being freed was a Big Mac, The Times said.
Two years later, Blake found him living on Social Security at a
downtown Los Angeles hotel, having moved from Santa Monica because the
rent "got too stiff."
"That’s what I’m getting by on," he said of his Social Security
payments. "It’s not a hell of a lot. That’s the reason I moved down
here." And at 83, he was continuing to fight his conviction. "There was
no legal reason for it," he said.
When Wagner began working on her book in 1983, she found Scott living
in a seedy mid-Wilshire apartment, The Times said. She interviewed him
repeatedly and he always told her the same story–he didn’t kill his
On Aug. 5, 1984, he called and asked to see her one more time, Johnston said. She went there the next day and he told her:
"Well," he said suddenly, "I arrived in Las Vegas about dusk…. I hit
her in the head with a mallet, a hard rubber mallet. Just once. On the
head, right on top."
According to Johnston’s story, Scott said he wrapped his wife’s body in
a tarp, put it in the trunk of a 1940 Ford and drove to the desert six
miles east of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He dug a grave, dumped the
body, drove around to cover his tracks, then "went to sleep the car for
a while. Then I drove back to Los Angeles."
As his health declined, Scott moved into the Skyline Convalescent Home
in Silver Lake.* Reporters dropped in now and then, hoping that he
would finally admit the killing. Tom Towers, who covered the trial for
the Examiner, was a regular.
"I always felt that he did it, but I was just unable to bring all the
pieces together to finalize my own conviction because there was no
body," Towers said. "I visited him repeatedly because, like a lot of
newspapermen, I felt if he is going to cop out he’d cop out to me."
Not that anyone believed his confession. Leavy, Towers and Arthur
Alarcon, a federal judge who had been assistant prosecutor in the case,
dismissed the idea that Scott could have killed anyone with a single
blow from a rubber mallet, Johnston wrote in 1986.
"The important thing is he acknowledged he killed her," Leavy said.
Scott died Aug. 15, 1987, and his body lay unclaimed at the Los Angeles
County morgue for more than a week, The Times said. He was 91 and left
no survivors. Except for his single conversation with Wagner, Scott
adamantly denied killing his wife. Why did he confess to Wagner? He
told her it would make a good epilogue to her book.
* According to Scott’s 1987 obituary by Ted Thackrey Jr., whose byline should be a red flag for careful researchers.
What a bastard.
I love our judicial system. 20 years = life. Bah.
Wait, I’m confused. Wagner was his wife?
-No. He was just old and senile. I should clarify that.
So what’s the deal with Ted Thackrey, Jr? Who is he, and why should his byline be a red flag?
–Ted Thackrey Jr. was an extremely colorful and highly respected Times rewrite man who got fired for making up a quote.
–I’ll post Al Martinez’s column, which served as an obituary.
Well, speaking of our judicial system, Griffin violations are considered per se reversible error. But it’s odd that the courts have not made rulings like these retroactive. In essence, after Griffin, the system acknowledges that Scott did not received a fair trial. After all, the jury was told repeatedly that if he was innocent, why wasn’t he testifying? A prosecutor who does this today stands to lose his law license. But we’re afraid of “the floodgates” so we let these ill-gotten convictions stand. Indeed, prisoners have been executed after having received constitutionally infirm trials. No matter what you think of this man’s guilt or innocence, let’s at least agree that he deserved a fair trial. Doesn’t appear he got one.
–Thanks for weighing in…. I appreciate your expertise. I was shocked in reading the coverage of the prosecutor’s closing arguments.