Jan. 22, 1958
It's a shocker. But it's worth the few minutes it'll take you to read it.
Because, as they say, there, but for the grace of God--
The subject of the story is Frank E. Vejar. He's 36 years old, married and the father of a 3-year-old girl.
According to the information which I have concerning him, he had no police record, no trouble of any kind and had held the same job for more than 10 years, receiving periodic promotions.
He and his wife were saving to buy a home. They made small deposits in their savings account toward it every paycheck, and to build their account a little faster, Frank had worked weekends as a special patrol officer.
This, basically, was Frank Vejar's life until the date of March 30, 1957.
On that date, according to his story, he went to visit a real estate man concerning a property investment. He took his two pistols with him--one, he said, to sell; the second to do some target practice on the desert.
But his real estate man wasn't in. And Frank sat down to wait for him in a cafe across the street. He looked out the window several times and he aroused the suspicions of the cafe proprietor, who called the police.
The police came and searched Vejar and his car and found the two pistols. They took him to the station and booked him on suspicion of robbery.
Because soon afterward, he was put in a police lineup and picked out by a Canoga Park market owner as the man who held up his store. A preliminary hearing was held and he was set to go on trial for armed robbery when another man confessed to the crime.
Police brought the market owner back to identify the new suspect, I'm told, but the market owner was steadfastly sure that Frank was the man.
Fortunately for Frank, the police felt that the witness was too ashamed to admit he had made a mistake. And finally the district attorney's office filed a written request to have the case against Vejar dropped on the basis of false identification.
But then the police found Frank's description and the description of his two revolvers matched that of a suspect in a rape-kidnap case which remained unsolved after 10 months.
They brought the victims of the rape-kidnap in to look at Frank. They didn't put him in a lineup. They just brought the victims into a room where Frank was sitting.
The victims said yes that was the man. And last May, Frank was charged with the crime--an offense punishable by death.
He remained in County Jail without bail. His trial came up on Sept. 20.
The victims testified that they were positive he was the man, even though his weight at the time of the crime was 84 pounds in excess of the weight of the man they originally described.
There was also a green hat found at the scene which the victims had stated that the suspect wore pulled down over his eyes. It was a small hat and it sat with comic irony on top of Frank's large head.
But that's all that was comic. In spite of some diligent detective work by the public defender to show that Frank was in a different place at the time of the kidnap, most of the jurors believed him guilty.
The jury hung--11 for conviction, one for acquittal. And Frank went back to jail to await a new trial.
It came Dec. 2. Two new lawyers entered the case in Frank's behalf--one appointed by the court, the second because he was convinced of Frank's innocence.
This time it was 7-5 for acquittal and another hung jury.
At neither trial did the prosecutor from the district attorney's office introduce the hat which looks so foolish perched on top of Frank's head. Nor, in the first trial, did he introduce the weapons which were found on Frank.
If he had, he would have weakened his case.
Fortunately for Frank, the defense counsel learned of the hat and introduced it at both trials. And equally fortunate, when the weapons were introduced at the second trial, the defense showed that they were not similar--as first suspected--to the weapons used in the kidnap.
I'm not an attorney.
And obviously, I cannot comment properly on the prosecutor's techniques in trying the case.
But I'm a reporter and I can question what at least seems to be an apparent effort to avoid introducing evidence which might damage the state's case for conviction.
We don't obligate the district attorney to convict.
We obligate him only to see that justice--whichever way it turns--is done.
Frank Vejar, who's been in County Jail since last spring, gets another crack at justice when he goes to trial for the third time on the same charge next Thursday.
[According to California death records, Frank E. Vejar died Jan. 15, 1999, at the age of 77. The Times reported his arrest, but did not cover his trials. Note that although Coates said Vejar had two revolvers, one is a semiautomatic--lrh].