Burton Abbott

Once again I find myself looking over a case in which not only must I be very careful in examining the information due to the time period of the crime but it is a crime that to this day, over 60 years later seems to be a debate.  Now, I will state right out of the gate that unlike some, I do not believe it is likely that Burton Abbott was framed or that he was innocent of the crime that he was ultimately convicted and executed for.  With that said, I do believe Burton Abbott's rights were violated and his execution should have never taken place when it did... but I will get to that later.

On April 28, 1955, fourteen year old, Alameda County California (near Berkeley for those who know) resident Stephanie Bryan did not arrive at home after school. A massive manhunt was formed but no trace of Stephanie could be found.  On May 2nd a textbook belonging to Stephanie was found in a field that would have been on her route home, but nothing else was found.  The textbook itself was unremarkable and the only damage it seemed to have was due to being out in the elements.

The case was idle until on July 15, 1955 when the police received a phone call. Some reports say that this call came from Georgia Abbott, while there are some that say the call was made by someone who was visiting their home at the time. At any rate the claim was that Georgia had gone into her basement to look for something and while there found a purse with Stephanie's ID in it.  She lived in the home with her husband, Burton, son, Chris and Burton's mother, Elsie. The police went to the home, questioned the family and searched more in the basement.  After digging they found a school book, glasses and a bra they would all later claim belonged to Stephanie.  The Abbots pointed out that their home had been used as a polling place the previous May and that anyone could have had access as neither of them could explain how the items got into their home.  Burton Abbott would say that on April 28th he had left in the morning to head to a cabin owned by his wife's family nearly 300 miles away.  

As I stated in a recent blog that was also about a crime in the mid 1950's, it was a time in which it was not unusual at all for reporters to play detective and/or even follow and assist officers in their investigations.  Those closest to the officer got the information first and often they would go out on their own searching.  This is just such a case.  Hearing of the cabin a reporter packed up and decided to go look.  He and the person with him got there rather late at night and could not really see a whole lot but claimed they smelled something. The following day they enlisted the help of a hunter from the area who brought his dogs along to help in the search.  Approximately 300 yards from the cabin an area was searched and the decomposing body of a young girl was found. The body was so decomposed due to the fact the person had obviously been dead for a while but also due to the moisture in the ground.  The body was only identified by the clothes that were rotting away on the corpse.  That being said, the body was identified as that of Stephanie Bryan.  Burton Abbott was promptly arrested and charged with kidnapping and murder.  

During his time of awaiting trial Burton voluntarily offered to take a lie detector test but the results were inconclusive, not that they would have mattered in the courts.  He hardly seemed as if he was the type of person to do this sort of crime.  He came off as a rather meek person, at least at first.  Others would claim that during his trial he seemed to smirk and appear sinister but then again I try to remember the style of reporting at the time and once it has been said it goes down into history as being true.  One of the first things that the defense argued was jurisdiction.  Jurisdiction is the first thing you learn about in law school.  Jurisdiction when it comes to crime is very important.  First it generally determines what police agency is involved and later what prosecutors office has the right to bring charges.  For example, an Ohio resident cannot kill someone in Florida and be tried in North Carolina... or even Ohio.... or, unless a change of venue by law to ensure a fair trial is granted any county other than the one in which the murder occurred can try the suspect.  But, as so often is the issue, it was uncertain just where the homicide in this case occurred.  The defense argued that Abbott should be tried in the county in which the body was found, while Alameda County decided that the kidnapping must have occurred in their county to which they theorized so did the murder.  The defense failed in their efforts.

So in November 1955 Burton Abbott's trial for the kidnapping a murder of 14 year old Stephanie Bryan began.  It lasted until January 25, 1956 when after seven days of deliberation the jury found Abbott guilty.  He was sentenced to die in the gas chamber.

Now if you were to look at all the information available on the net you would find a lot of arguments about how Burton Abbott was not only convicted, but sentenced to die on circumstantial evidence.  Many will argue that was unjust. Well reality is that MOST cases that you find are based on circumstantial evidence even today, let alone 1955.   Circumstantial evidence is that evidence it which placed together allows someone to reasonable infer what happened. Even fingerprints and DNA evidence is considered circumstantial evidence but people want to throw around that word like it is something new and how dare we convict someone one on anything other than "direct" evidence.  Well here is the thing... direct evidence may not be all it is cracked up to be either, that is depending on what it is.  Now if there is a video of a murder and it is absolutely clear who the perpetrator and victim are that would be clearly un-refuted direct evidence. But in the same respect someone can get on a witness stand and say they saw the defendant shoot and kill the victim and that too is direct evidence. And what if that person is lying?  Most criminal cases that go to trial are based almost solely on circumstantial evidence... why?  Because those that have absolute proof through direct evidence do not often make it to trial because the prosecution is offering a plea deal to save time and money and the defendant knows they are caught.  

The other thing you are going to find a lot of is simply most of what you have read above from me about the circumstances leading up to the trial and then the result.  You will also find a lot about what occurred at his execution and circumstances surrounding that.  However, it takes a bit more digging to find the appeal that was ruled on in 1956.  Appeals are often the best source of information.  An appeal almost always tells not only all of the circumstances that lead to the arrest of the defendant but also of the crime and of things that happened within the trial.  And the best thing about these papers is that they are not drama filled or exaggerated, they are all simply based on fact. So unless you read the appeal in this case you may in fact believe there was not enough evidence to convict Burton Abbott. I would have to respectful likely disagree with that decision.

Before I go into exactly what really went on at the trial and what evidence was presented that most websites do not talk about let's just look at what we do know.  We know that items belonging to Stephanie Bryan were found in the basement of the Abbott home.  We also know that Stephanie's body was found on property owned by Burton Abbott's in laws, and it was property that he himself claimed to be on the night of the murders.  In some places, without reading the appeal you will see that some hairs and fibers were found inside Burton Abbott's home that were said to be linked to Stephanie's hair and clothing. The person who testified to these results was a criminologist by the name of Paul Kirk.  Since forensics were not what they are today I thought I would do a quick search of Paul Kirk and see just how respected he was in his field.  I must admit that I was surprised at the results.  Paul Kirk was apparently a top notch forensic scientist. In fact, it is said that it was Kirk's testimony on blood splatter that got Sam Sheppard acquitted at his second trial.  So despite any reservations I may have about early forensics it appears as if Kirk knew what he was doing.  However, back to our story.... just on this information alone seems quite enough to convict Burton Abbott in my opinion, especially in 1955.

You will also find that people argued that the prosecution in the case used "emotion" more than facts when presenting the case.  Again, some will argue that he was forced to do so because the evidence was not there, once again I disagree with that.  It does seem that the prosecutor was a bit theatrical but so are a lot of lawyers.  The only issue that I saw raised often was that the prosecutor called Burton Abbott a sexual psychopath.  I found one report that curtly mentioned that a young girl had said she was followed one day by someone who she later identified as Burton Abbott but I am not sure how much credence can be given to that and even if we see it as fact, there was nothing else in Burton's history that indicates he was a sexual psychopath.  In fact, Stephanie's body was so decomposed that while it was said her panties were found around her neck there was no way to determine if she had been sexually assaulted or not.  Despite that it did not stop the prosecutor from claiming that Stephanie was murdered because Burton had attempted to rape her and she had resisted.  This would be one of the few areas I have to agree with those who criticize the prosecution and case.  Apparently the prosecutor was allowed to make these statements and claims without any sort of proof and it seems they were stated as fact in court and not as theory.  

There were also rumors, that apparently were later proven untrue but have gone down in legend that Georgia Abbott was having an affair, and later married one of the officers involved in the investigation.  I am unsure where this came about but most people dispute this claim saying she left the state with her son, Christopher, changed her name and later married someone rather wealthy only to return to California years later. Most claims state that throughout his trial Georgia supported and defended Burton so I do not find a lot of credence in this theory.  However, it is often used as a reason or a way that Burton could have been set up as he claimed.

Now, I know I mentioned the appeal I read several paragraphs before and as I tend to do I got a little sidetracked so before I go any further I want to discuss that more.  As I previously said the appeals are where you find the most useful information so while I had the very short version of the case and saw all the arguments among readers about things I had not read I put those aside to see just really what was presented at the trial.  What you do not hear or see in cursory searches on this case is that while Burton said he left for the cabin on the morning of the 28th, a witness testified to have seen Burton that afternoon, in town in a local doughnut shop that he often frequented.  The witness claims that Burton left around 3:20 that day.  And while Burton claimed to have gone to the beauty salon that Georgia worked at that morning before leaving, witnesses there claim he was not there in the morning but more around 2:30 pm.  There were also five witnesses who testified they saw a man and a young girl struggling near somewhere near the area Stephanie would have passed to go home.  One of those witnesses positively identified Burton as that man in court; another stated he recognized him as the man he saw from his picture in the paper; one of the other witnesses could not identify him positively but the description he gave was similar to Burton.  The remaining two witnesses only described the car involved to which was similar to Burton's car.  Now, I will be honest here in saying I have no idea when these witnesses came forward.  I found absolutely nothing about any of these witnesses that testified in the trial according to the appeal in any other of my research.  Of course you have to ask, did the five people who said they saw a man struggling with a young girl report it on that day?  Or did their testimony only come about after Burton was arrested?  We all know that eye witnesses can be wrong, but part of the point of putting this here is to point out that the jury had other things aside from what is readily available.  One of the other things that was interesting in the appeal is that it was mentioned that when he was asked about the route he took to the cabin that day he did not mention making a stop in Sacramento nor did the route he described taking go near there.  However, Burton's brother and his wife had met him at the cabin on the 29th and so they too had been interviewed.  It was while speaking to them that it was mentioned that Burton had said he stopped in Sacramento on his way to the cabin.  It seems that when investigators confronted him with this he "suddenly" remembered going through there. But, he first claimed to be going to a particular place there and described the supposed building but he would later change his story again saying that he went to Sacramento but he had been unable to find the place in which he was looking for.  Burton, and his brother left the cabin on May 1st and headed back home.  On May 2nd the textbook belonging to Stephanie Bryan was found in the field.... a field that had been searched back the first few days she went missing but was not found.  It was said in court that the area in which the book was found was on the route Burton would have taken home the day before.  There was also evidence that on the 2nd, later in the morning, after the textbook had been found, Burton had gone to a tire company near there, but when questioned about it he was very vague and later admitted buying nothing. 

So as you can see there was much more evidence than what you will find on a quick search of the case, and while newspaper accounts, and other sites, admittedly including those like my own, cannot always be relied on to present the facts, an appeal is simply nothing but facts that the jury heard in the courtroom.  

It should be pointed out that until the day she died in 2004, Burton's mother proclaimed her son's innocence and said that California had murdered her son by his execution.  She went to her death not only believing him to be innocent but surprisingly thought she knew who did it, her own brother, Wilbur Moore.  I cannot tell you why she thought this but apparently she did and it sounds as if she had some evidence to convince others, but I cannot say what that was. She would argue to many that Burton had suffered from tuberculosis and had weak lungs that would have prevented him from not only carrying Stephanie's body but from digging the grave.  Again, this is information that only really seemed to come from her and I could not collaborate.  Was she a mother who just wanted to believe her son to be innocent or did she have some points and proof that has not made it through time?

So I think I have made it obvious that it is my opinion that it is likely that Burton Abbott was in fact guilty of murder, and was executed for that crime. But it does not end there and for me this case was not about his guilt or innocence but more about the fact that the law was not followed.  Whether a person is guilty or innocent is rarely an issue for me, the law is though.  We have a process in this country, and although it has changed over the decades as new things are discovered it is imperative that we follow those laws and abide by them.  At any rate after his appeal was denied apparently the defense asked that a higher court hear the case to which they refused.  However, by law the attorney's had 90 days to file what is called a writ of certiorai, which is a reexamination of the record.  And yet an execution date was set more than two weeks prior to that 90 cut off.  So on the morning of March 15, 1957 as the state of California was preparing to execute Burton Abbott in their gas chamber at approximately 11 am, his lawyers were pulling all the strings they could to get a stay.  They claim they tried repeatedly to reach the governor, Goodwin Knight, who was apparently not in town on that morning.  At 11:15 Burton was led to the gas chamber and at 11:18 the lever to release the gas was released. In the meantime the governor had been reached and had although it has never been determined why he elected to grant a stay for only one hour, he did so at 11:12, at least to the defense lawyers.  Using another line and going through his secretary, to eventually the warden at the prison he did not get through until after the gas had been released and the execution could not be stopped. Regardless of the reason that the governor was only supposedly going to grant an hour stay (we can theorize that he was giving the defense one more hour to come up with something), he rights were violated in the fact that his case technically was still in the courts, or he still retained rights for it to be and he was executed before the time he was allot to have had ran out.  

While we may argue and disagree sometimes at the appeals process granted to those today, especially those awaiting death sentences, it is hard to argue that a case should be began and ended as fast as this case was, despite it being the way of the times.  Burton Abbott was arrested on July 16, 1955.... his trial began less than four months later on November 7, 1955.... and although it lasted longer than a lot of them it did not end until January 25, 1956.  In the course of the next 14 months his case was heard once by the court, although he was entitled to more and he was executed.  That hardly seems time to not only have an adequate and fair defense (without even mentioning that the crime was tried without a change of venue for a high profile and inflammatory case) but a fair trial and a proper look at the case from afar as every capital case is entitled. 

Comments

  1. Abbott was guilty as hell. Far too many coincidences.

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  2. Not quick enough for Stephanie's family

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  3. Interestingly, the Abbot house on San Jose Ave is on the market. I went to view it this week and heard for the first time from the realtor about the murder (as part of obligatory disclosures). It was pretty creepy to be in the basement where the victim's possessions were found. I'm not from the area but have been reading up on the case since then. Thanks for the write up

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