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“I miss the sound of the castanets”
                                       Bill Bernsen
                             Intelligence Bureau #268, 1976-1978
Only History and Ghosts Walk Hall of Justice
At the site of the Hall of Justice, life and death have been meted out for more than a century to a who's who of Los Angeles' famous and felonious.
The imposing edifice, bounded by Broadway, Spring and Temple Streets, has been the scene of sensational trials and the temporary address of depraved criminals. Murderer Charles Manson pronounced the accommodations "Stone Age." But an earlier guest, mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, rated better service: He was permitted to leave on chauffeured excursions to lunch and to visit his barber.
In 1944, a crowd of Latinos cried and cheered as a dozen "zoot-suiters"
walked out free men, after their tainted convictions in the "Sleepy
Lagoon" murder trial were overturned.  Robert Mitchum was jailed here in 1947 for marijuana possession. The press photographed the obliging actor in a variety of poses, such as mopping his cellblock floor.
And it was here, in the basement morgue, that Marilyn Monroe's body was
autopsied in 1962, after she committed suicide at 36.
The site was known for law, order and disorder long before the
$6.5-million Hall of Justice opened in 1926.
In 1870, a midday shootout left half of the city's eight-man police
force dead or wounded, among them William Crossman Warren, the city's
only police chief to die in the line of duty. The killer went free--in
part because he was one of the department's own, angry over an unpaid
bounty fee.
One of the darkest episodes involving the site came Oct. 24, 1871, 
after a white man was killed and another wounded in crossfire between two rival Chinese tongs. Within hours, a white and Latino mob besieged and looted the Chinese quarter, killing 18 people.  Some of them were hanged at the hall's site, which was then a lumberyard and corral where Angelenos often did their lynchings. Eight men were found guilty, but their convictions were overturned because of a flaw in the indictments. They were never retried.
At those gallows, 35 lynchings took place over two decades--including
that of L.A.'s most notorious outlaw, Juan Flores. But eventually, the gallows gave way to one of the most lavish, lucrative and genteel prostitution businesses in Los Angeles: Pearl Morton's bordello.
Charity for All and Malice Toward None She ran it around the turn of the century with the full knowledge and even the patronage of the law:  Her landlord was Deputy Sheriff Juan Murrieta (for whom Murrieta Hot Springs in Riverside County is named). Her charity for all and malice toward none made her L.A.'s most beloved and respected madam--at least by men.
By 1891, a new red sandstone courthouse anchored the growing Civic
Center, built on what was colloquially known as Pound Cake Hill by
Americans and Loma de las Mariposas--Hill of Butterflies--by Latinos.
The courthouse was conveniently located across the street from Morton's
brothel, where judges and attorneys were known to take long coffee breaks.
The Hall of Justice was built in 1925 and opened for business in 1926.
But before construction could begin, six horses and some muscle-bound
men had to drag the 11,000-ton Alhambra Hotel 130 feet to the north to
make room. Behind the Italian Renaissance facade of white granite, the hall's 14 floors housed courtrooms, 520 double cells, and offices for the district attorney, public defender, sheriff and coroner. Sensational trials filled those courtrooms: actors Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin in sex and paternity cases; a perjuring district attorney named Buron Fitts; the controversial death penalty trial of "Red Light Bandit" Caryl Chessman; and Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of assassinating Robert F.
Over the years, desperate inmates tried to escape. Many succeeded,
though most were quickly recaptured. A few even fell to their deaths by
trying to rappel down the granite walls with ropes fashioned from
blankets. Manson dangled a wire from his cell window and tried to smuggle in marijuana and a hacksaw. In 1931, Clara Phillips, the "Tiger Woman" convicted of killing her husband's lover, had better luck with a hacksaw smuggled in by a love-struck courtroom admirer. She was recaptured and spent 12 years in prison. Judges escaped the building's confines by crossing Broadway and ascending Bunker Hill via Court Flight. Twin 14-passenger wooden cable cars climbed a 200-foot grade to the judges' private club, a 50-room Victorian mansion that once was home to mining tycoon Lewis Leonard Bradbury.
Even a Role in Harold Lloyd Comedies
Filmmaker Hal Roach rented it for one-reel Harold Lloyd comedies,
including "Just Nuts" (1915) and "Haunted Spooks" (1920). It’s big,
drafty spaces led Lloyd to call it "pneumonia hall." The mansion was
torn down for parking, and Court Flight was dismantled in 1944.
Throughout the 1950s, sheriff's officials faced a persistent problem in
the basement crime vault: Mice were eating the marijuana seized as
evidence. Cats were imported, to no avail. "Those mice are addicts," 
one official said at the time.
In 1970, rodents, inmates and Saturday workers all shook when a time
bomb exploded on the sixth floor next to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty.
Evelle Younger's office. No one was injured, but a bathroom and a 
flight of stairs were destroyed. Younger stepped up security, calling the incident "not a very friendly act." In either an impulse of civic duty or a creative escape attempt, an inmate told officials that his Black Panther cellmate was involved in the bombing. Today, a framed 
memorandum identifying the suspect hangs on a wall in the Sheriff's Department explosives unit, but no one was ever prosecuted.
Sometimes the mayhem outside the hall overshadowed the drama within.
In the 1970s, Manson's female followers held a daily vigil during his
trial. They shaved their heads and carved Xs into their foreheads.
Passersby paused in awe as daredevil Evel Knievel--who had been
sentenced to spend six months in the county lockup for attacking a
television executive with a baseball bat--was picked up in a 
chauffeured Stutz. After working all day, he would return to his cell in the evening. When he was released--the same day as 20 other inmates—he ordered individual limos that lined Spring Street.
The gradual departure from the Hall of Justice began in 1971, when the
District attorney and public defender's office and municipal and
Superior courts relocated across the street to the Criminal Courts
Building (recently renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice
The coroner's office followed the next year, moving to its present
location on Mission Road. In 1993, the Sheriff's Department left for a
modern compound in the San Gabriel Valley. And in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake, the Hall of Justice was red-tagged as unsafe.
Today, darkened and empty, the hall is like a ghost waiting to be
brought back to life. Chandeliers hang above tarnished bronze
staircases. Graffiti scars the walls and paint flakes from the ceiling.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently chose a private
entity, Hall of Justice Associates, to design and restore the building for about $127 million. In exchange, the county is pursuing a complicated long-term lease arrangement that would eventually cover the cost.
After the restoration is complete--expected in 2005--Sheriff Lee Baca
hopes to relocate his office and staff from a quiet hillside compound 
in Monterey Park to Los Angeles' political hub.
In the meantime, the Hall of Justice is vacant of everything but its
vivid past.