Jake Ehrlich, Criminal Lawyer, Dies

By Martin Weil, Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, December 25, 1971

J.W. (Jake) Ehrlich, 71, a San Francisco criminal lawyer whose courtroom skills, stratagems and successes won him national fame, died in his sleep yesterday at his home.

Mr. Ehrlich, know by admirers as "The Master," had been in good condition the day before, an associate said. Death was attributed to an apparent heart attack.

Mr. Ehrlich’s brother, Myron G., also a well known courtroom lawyer, died of cancer here last Dec.23. Both were born in the Washington area.

A California lawyer since 1922 with an active civil as well as criminal practice, Mr. Ehrlich accumulated a file of colorful cases that formed the basis for the fictional television series "Sam Benedict."

Much of Mr. Ehrlich’s reputation, as well as his nickname as "The Master," stemmed from his record in the 105 murder cases in which he either collaborated or handled personally.

None of the defendants received the death penalty, even when it was meted out with far greater frequency than today.

The many acquittals won by Mr. Ehrlich appeared to underscore the significance of the title of one of his several books: "Never Plead Guilty."

That one, first published in 1955, sold mote that 2 million copies in paperback, and helped make him a kink of folk-hero of the American criminal bar.

He wrote at least non other books, including "A Life in My Hands," and "The Lost Art of Cross Examination."

Spectacular acquittals contributed to the development of Mr. Ehrlich’s reputation. In one case he defended a young woman charged with murdering her boy friend. She had been alone in a hotel room with him, and he had died with three bullet wounds in his back.

It looked bad. But it took the jury 13 minutes to agree with Mr. Ehrlich’s argument that his client should be freed. In another murder case it took the jury only four minutes to bring in a verdict for Mr. Ehrlich’s client.

Of Mr. Ehrlich, whose career is intertwined with a period in which life in San Francisco assumed the aura of legend, it is said that he once won an acquittal on an indecency charge for Sally Rand by having her perform her famous fan dance in the courtroom.

In his civil practice, which included divorce cases, Mr. Ehrlich represented a number of California celebrities.

The list of those wh had been his clients at one time or another included Errol Flynn, Gene Krupa, Billie Holliday and Howard Hughes.

They recognized a reputation that once permitted him to ask and receive willingly a fee of $15,000 for 15 minutes in court.

Born Jacob Wilbur Ehrlich near Rockville, Md., October 15, 1900, Mr. Ehrlich attended Georgetown University hare and received his law degree from San Francisco Law School.

Standing 5 feet 7 and weighing a trim 140 pounds, Mr. Ehrlich had been a professional boxer as a young man, and had a long-lived reputation as an elegant dresser.

The starched cuffs, expensive suits and highly polished cowboy boots went along with what has been described as an often blustery and bombastic courtroom manner.

Active in San Francisco community activities, he was for many years president of Saints and Sinners, an organization devoted to getting free milk for school children. As a lawyer for the San Francisco Policemen’s Association, he defended policemen in some controversial cases.

He is survived by his wife, the former Marjorie Mercer, a son Jacob Jr., and a daughter, Mrs. Guy Cherney Jr.

He is also survived by three brothers, Alvin Q. of Bethesda, E. Jack of San Francisco and Samuel Z. of Silver Springs, and a sister, Mrs. Frank Garner of Hyattsville.