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A miracle

October 5, 2007 |  8:46 am

Oct. 5, 1957

1957_1005_poret The story of Alton Clifton Poret presents unusually frustrating challenges for the diligent researcher. Identified in a 1954 Times story as "a former Los Angeles Negro," Poret and Edgar Labat were sentenced to die in Louisiana's electric chair for the Nov. 12, 1950, rape of a white New Orleans telephone operator.

Not that The Times ever said anything so indelicately precise. Indeed, the paper never ran a word about the original trial and in later stories merely referred to "a criminal assault charge" or a "criminal attack of a white woman."

If it weren't for the efforts of a Westside meat dealer and bail bondsman, The Times would have written almost nothing about the case. The advocate was Nelson N. Soll, and he began raising money for Poret's defense after reading a Louisiana newspaper article.

"I thought Poret's story was phony at first," Soll said in a Sept. 14, 1957, story. "Then I checked it out. I've spent four years on this case. I have collected affidavits that prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Poret is innocent--that he was not even anywhere near the scene of the crime. But he is a black man and he is sentenced to die and only a miracle of the Lord can keep him from being strapped into that electric chair at one minute past minute next Friday. We are praying for that miracle."

For his troubles, Soll had a cross burned on the front lawn of his home at 1523 Crest Drive, The Times said.  Rabbi Abraham  I. Maron of Congregation Mogen David and the Rev. Leroy M. Kopp  of the United Fundamentalist Church led the local religious campaign calling for Poret to be spared.

Eventually, the Hollywood Committee for Alton Clifton Poret's Defense was formed, headed by Adolphe Menjou. (I guess I'll have to rethink my opinion of Menjou, which was pretty low after he praised the Japanese evacuation of Los Angeles during World War II. To paraphrase, he said he hoped to never see another Japanese face).

After a long and complex legal battle (the men contended that whites were systematically excluded from juries) Poret and Labat were released from prison in 1969, having pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated assault. At that time, they held the record for being on America's death row. Of their 16 years, two months and two days in prison, 14 years had been on death row.

According to the Social Security Death Index, a man named Edgar M. Labat died in 1998 in Mississippi. Poret disappeared from the pages of history after being convicted of attempted rape in Rochester, N.Y., in 1971.

He wrote this poem in prison:

  Living at the river's edge,
  Never knowing when they'll drive that final wedge.
  Will the wheel of justice ever look my way?
  And when it does, what will it have to say?

Nelson N. Soll died in 1994 at the age of 84. His activism did not end with Poret. He raised money for the defense of a boyhood friend, Jack Ruby, despite many death threats.

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