In 1986, bedridden, frail and slowly dying in a Silver Lake convalescent home, 89-year-old Leonard Ewing Scott agreed to see a visitor, Times reporter David Johnston. Scott had been freed from San Quentin in 1978 after serving 20 years, released without supervision because the prisoner--one of the oldest in the state's penal system--refused to agree to parole as it would imply that he had truly killed his wife, Evelyn, in 1955.
Johnston was running down details for a story about new book. It seemed that where all the investigators had failed, a young writer named Diane Wagner had gotten a tape-recorded confession in 1984 for a manuscript she was writing, "Corpus Delecti." Scott told her that he killed his wife by striking on the head with a rubber mallet, wrapped the body in a tarp and buried it near Las Vegas.
The reporter asked Scott if he knew Wagner. Of course, said Scott, who was sometimes disoriented and edging toward senility, she was his third wife. In fact, he told another reporter, they went on a honeymoon to South America.
Had he seen the book, Johnston asked. No.
Johnston read the transcript of the confession as the convicted killer lay in bed, eyes fixed on his guest. Scott started to say something, then stopped.
"What do you want?" Scott asked.
What made him acknowledge the killing after all these years?
"Acknowledge it? I'd be a damn fool to acknowledge it--they never found the body."
As far as the California Department of Corrections was concerned, Scott was freed in 1978, but he remained in a prison of his own--a prison of denial--for the rest of his life.
Officials had tried to release him in 1974, but he wouldn't leave. Not that he didn't want to get out, for he spent most of his days in his 4 1/2-foot by 9-foot cell typing letters and legal appeals. They never found the body, he insisted, as he had since first fell under suspicion in his wife's disappearance.
More important, during the trial, prosecutor J. Miller Leavy hammered away at Scott for failing to testify. It was proof, Leavy insisted again and again, that Scott was guilty and afraid to take the stand. In a 1965 ruling in the case of Griffin vs. California, the U.S. Supreme Court found that such remarks violated the 5th Amendment. But the court did not make the ruling apply retroactively to cases such as Scott's. As far as the state was concerned, he had no grounds for an appeal. He continued his legal fight, but without success.
Then, in the fall of 1974, when he was 78, the state attempted to parole him for the first time.
"They pulled out a piece of paper and said, 'Here, sign this,' " he said. "I read it over and said, 'From just what in the hell do you propose to parole me? You know I'm being held here illegally, without a valid conviction.' Well, they were flabbergasted. They're all used to guys saying, 'Yes sir, no sir, whatever you say, sir.' But I won't do that."
The state made a second attempt to parole him in early 1978. Again, he turned it down.
A few weeks later, he sent a letter to Times reporter Gene Blake, who covered the trial in 1957.
"I told you some time ago that you would be the first to be given information when I leave this hellhole. I always try to abide by my promises," Scott wrote.
After refusing to be "suckered into accepting a parole," Scott said, prison officials told him he was being released. He slowly cleaned out his cell, which was filled with 500 pounds of legal files.
On March 17, 1978, 81-year-old Leonard Ewing Scott limped out of San Quentin, leaning on a cane after breaking his hip in a fall, and still wearing his prison denims with $200 from the state in his pocket. As he was released to some friends who ran a mobile ministry for truck drivers, Scott said his first act of freedom would be to sue his wife for divorce. She was still alive, he insisted, and had been arrested twice in Mexico for drunk driving. His first meal after being freed was a Big Mac, The Times said.
Two years later, Blake found him living on Social Security at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, having moved from Santa Monica because the rent "got too stiff."
"That's what I'm getting by on," he said of his Social Security payments. "It's not a hell of a lot. That's the reason I moved down here." And at 83, he was continuing to fight his conviction. "There was no legal reason for it," he said.
When Wagner began working on her book in 1983, she found Scott living in a seedy mid-Wilshire apartment, The Times said. She interviewed him repeatedly and he always told her the same story--he didn't kill his wife.
On Aug. 5, 1984, he called and asked to see her one more time, Johnston said. She went there the next day and he told her:
"Well," he said suddenly, "I arrived in Las Vegas about dusk.... I hit her in the head with a mallet, a hard rubber mallet. Just once. On the head, right on top."
According to Johnston's story, Scott said he wrapped his wife's body in a tarp, put it in the trunk of a 1940 Ford and drove to the desert six miles east of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He dug a grave, dumped the body, drove around to cover his tracks, then "went to sleep the car for a while. Then I drove back to Los Angeles."
As his health declined, Scott moved into the Skyline Convalescent Home in Silver Lake.* Reporters dropped in now and then, hoping that he would finally admit the killing. Tom Towers, who covered the trial for the Examiner, was a regular.
"I always felt that he did it, but I was just unable to bring all the pieces together to finalize my own conviction because there was no body," Towers said. "I visited him repeatedly because, like a lot of newspapermen, I felt if he is going to cop out he'd cop out to me."
Not that anyone believed his confession. Leavy, Towers and Arthur Alarcon, a federal judge who had been assistant prosecutor in the case, dismissed the idea that Scott could have killed anyone with a single blow from a rubber mallet, Johnston wrote in 1986.
"The important thing is he acknowledged he killed her," Leavy said.
Scott died Aug. 15, 1987, and his body lay unclaimed at the Los Angeles County morgue for more than a week, The Times said. He was 91 and left no survivors. Except for his single conversation with Wagner, Scott adamantly denied killing his wife. Why did he confess to Wagner? He told her it would make a good epilogue to her book.
* According to Scott's 1987 obituary by Ted Thackrey Jr., whose byline should be a red flag for careful researchers.