J.W. Ehrlich, the celebrated criminal lawyer who defended some of the most famous murder suspects in the West and never lost one to the gas chamber, died yesterday at the age of 71.
He had appeared to be in good health. His son, J.W. Ehrlich Jr., said Mr. Ehrlich went to his office on Montgomery street as usual Thursday morning and also as usual, ate lunch with financier Louis R, Lurie at Jack’s.
He returned to his home on Nob Hill, went to bed that evening as usual and then, in the words of the younger Ehrlich, "just passed in his sleep."
J.W. Ehrlich—his full name was Jacob Wilbur Ehrlich, but he was known as "Jake" of "Jake the Master"—because a flamboyant success in 1931 when he and attorney Jerry Geisler of Hollywood succeeded in reversing the rape conviction of theater magnate Alexander Pantages.
Mr. Ehrlich soon began defending well-known clients like Howard Hughes, Billie Holliday, Gene Krupa, Errol Flynn, Artie Samish, Sally Stanford and a seemingly endless stream of women accused of killing their husbands.
The legend was that Mr. Ehrlich achieved perfection in his murder trials, but actually he fell a little short.
A box score in 1955 showed he had defended 55 murder suspects up to that time without a single first degree conviction. There were 41 acquittals, two convictions for second degree murder and 12 manslaughter convictions.
Some were hard to defend. In 1952, Gertrude Morris, who acknowledged shooting her husband in the back after he asked for a divorce, said she wanted the jury to send her to the gas chamber.
As Mrs. Morris explained it, "I loved him so much I killed him. I couldn’t bear to see him leave."
Mr. Ehrlich’s pleas to the jurors to save Mrs. Morris in spite of herself caused one woman juror to sob and another to dab her eyes frequently with her handkerchief. Mrs. Morris wept, too.
She got off with a manslaughter conviction.
"You are a very talented man," Mrs. Morris told Mr. Ehrlich. "You missed your vocation on the stage. I guess this verdict is one more feather in your cap. . .But maybe hanging would have been the best thing.
The trial vindicated Mr. Ehrlich’s motto, "Never Plead Guilty." a phrase later used as the title of a book about the San Francisco lawyer by John Wesley Noble and Bernard Averbuch.
"Joan of Arc would never have paid with her life had gallant Jake been there to defend her," the two authors concluded.
Mr. Ehrlich’s origins were wrapped in legend, some of it created by himself. It was known that he was born October 15, 1900, near Rockville, Md., and it was known that he arrived almost penniless in San Francisco after leaving home in his mid-teens.
He was a drayman—for Wells Fargo, according to the biography he wrote for "Who’s Who in America"—and a professional prizefighter for a short time before becoming a lawyer.
He earned his law degree at Georgetown University in Washingon D.C., and later went back and obtained a doctorate in law. There was a story about a kindly landlady who told him not to worry about the rent ("You look like an honest hard worker to me," she said. "Pay me when you can.")—and a story of how he later defended a police inspector without charge.
That police inspector, the entranced listeners learned, was the landlady’s son. But it wasn’t until he published an autobiography in 1965 that Mr. Ehrlich revealed his origins. His family home, he wrote, was "a white-columned mansion from whose balconied second-storied windows one could glimpse the green expanses of Virginia across the lovely river that—an hour’s flow below—coiled through official Washington."
Despite his origins, he could never be called a stuffy man.
He mad a striking appearance in court. His white cuff-links shot out of his sleeves. He wore a handkerchief high in his breast pocket.
His approach to the law did not have the full approval of the legal profession. He was publicly reproved by the State Bar for permitting his name to be used in connection with the old Sam Benedict television series.
The bar forbids lawyers to advertise, but viewers were told each week that San Benedict’s adventures were based "on the living character of J.W. (Jake) Ehrlich."
There were some less triumphant moments. Virtually no one remembered, for example, that Mr. Ehrlich ran for the Republican nomination for Attorney General of California in 1930. He lost in the primary.
He had bad luck with the old San Francisco National Bank, acting first as a director and finally, for the last two months of its life, serving as chairman of the board in an effort to save the bank from collapse. He lost heavily in the crash.
His last major courtroom victory was the acquittal of Police Officer Michael R. O’Brien three years ago on charges of killing George Baskett, a black truck driver. Mr. Ehrlich was accused of using racial insults in the trial and the Police Commission heating that followed.
"We will not have any Mississippi backwoods trial here," Dr. Washington Garner, the one black member of the commission, told Mr. Ehrlich.
The lawyer replied that he had given scholarships to black people, defended them free . . . "and I won’t take any backtalk out of them."
There were other clients who were defended free, as well.
But Mr. Ehrlich said, there was a simple way of determining the standard fee for any one accused of murder. It was, he told the incredulous, everything the defendant had in the way of worldly goods. Everything.
"Why not?" he asked. "If they go to the gas chamber, it won’t do them any good."
In addition to practicing law, Mr. Ehrlich wrote at least nine books, including "Ehrlich’s Blackstone." "The Lost Art of Cross Examination," "A Reasonable Doubt" and the autobiographical "A Life in My Hands."
He received an honorary degree of doctor of laws from George Washington University.
Mr. Ehrlich represented the Police Officers Association for many years. The connection ended this year.
"He was on of San Francisco’s best known personalities," Mayor Joseph L. Alioto said after learning of Mr. Ehrlich’s death, "He added great color to the life of our city. He will be missed."
Presiding Judge Francis McCarty of the San Francisco Superior Court said, "He was a credit to the law profession, a fine lawyer and, more importantly, a fine man. He had the highest integrity and morality.
Mr. Ehrlich is survived by his wife, the former Marjorie Mercer, whom he married 51 years ago; a son J.W. Ehrlich Jr.; and a daughter, Dora Jane Horton; two brothers, Jack, who lives in San Francisco, and Alvin of Washington, D.C., and four grandchildren.
His Brother, Myron, a famous Washington, D.C., lawyer, died earlier this year.
Funeral services will be private. Halsted & Co. is in charge of arrangements.