Friday, September 12, 2003

Book Review: "The Smokin Gun" by Gerry Spence

printed in the Newport News-Times of Septmber 12, 2003

"Prosecutor takes look at book on Lincoln County"

At the end of September, the Wyoming celebrity attorney who has been called the "buckaroo barrister" will visit a Newport bookstore to autograph copies of his book about the murder of Wilfred Gerttula in July of 1985 and the trials of Sandy Jones and her son.

Gerry Spence made a grand entrance to Newport in November of that year in his private plane, announcing to the press that the case was "obviously a case of a powerless woman caught in a system in which the power structure is of men."
On a July afternoon 18 years ago, Wilfred Gerttula and his wife were driving down Immonen Road when they were confronted by Jones and her then 15-year-old son, Michael. Soon afterward, a hail of bullets had been fired from guns carried by Mrs. Jones and her son, and Wil Gerttula lay dying in his pickup.

Monica Gerttula had been armed with a camera that day and took a photo of Sandy Jones, rifle to her shoulder, smoke coming out the barrel. Spence titled his book "The Smoking Gun" based on that picture. The book is sub-titled "A True Story," but for those of us who lived through the events, a more accurate description would be "inspired by some things that actually happened."

For almost a decade I have served as the district attorney in Astoria, on the north coast, but 18 years ago, I was a deputy district attorney in Lincoln County. Although I had not lived in Newport when Gerttula was killed, I was assigned to try the case of the teenage son of Sandy Jones, who was accused of murder in juvenile court. Then, as now, a juvenile is entitled to all the rights of an adult except that of a jury trial. The Jones family claimed the local judges were prejudiced against them, and a judge from Corvallis was assigned to try the case.

Spence made quite an entrance, and was aided at counsel table by another lawyer from his Wyoming law firm and Lincoln City attorney Steve Lovejoy, who had been appointed by the court to represent Michael Jones Jr.

Spence also had a new theory of the case - one which neither his client nor his client's mother had ever bothered to tell police. He claimed that Gerttula had been shot by his own wife, who then somehow disposed of both the gun and the spent shell that would have ejected from the weapon.

In the trials that followed over the following years, neither Sandy Jones nor her son ever testified or publicly told their version of how Wil Gerttula ended up shot to death. They had Gerry Spence, whose skills as a storyteller are remarkable, to spin a tale to challenge the state's evidence.

Young Michael's trial took most of December 1985 and attracted spectators from around the state to watch Spence's mesmerizing, 6-hour closing argument to Judge Robert Gardner. Spence had made it clear that he was going to also represent Michael's mother, whose court-appointed attorney, Michele Longo, sat in the courtroom throughout the juvenile trial. The defense plan was clear - get a not guilty verdict in the son's case and then it would be a cakewalk to destroy the state's case against the mother at the jury trial scheduled for January 1986.
But for a lawyer who claims to "have never lost a criminal case," it didn't turn out as he expected. Judge Gardner not only ruled that Michael had shot Gerttula, but after Spence had earlier insisted on a series of "special findings," ruled that the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Michael had not acted in self defense and that "neither Mr. Gerttula nor Mrs. Gerttula had in their possession or fired a pistol or rifle."

Clearly stunned, Spence left town, only to return the following month demanding that Judge Gardner be taken off the case and that another judge's rulings that found proof of guilt against Sandy Jones was strong enough to hold her without bail be rejected. He also wanted a re-consideration of yet another judge's denial of his attempt to move the case out of Newport.

Salvation came on Jan. 25, 1986, in the form of Judge Harl Haas of Portland, who not only granted all those requests, but also agreed to exclude the entire Lincoln County District Attorney's Office from the case on the grounds that then-district attorney Ulys Stapleton "might" be called as a witness.

A few months later, Haas dismissed all charges against Sandra Jones after a Lincoln County deputy sheriff who had been involved in the case was charged with (and eventually convicted of) stealing drugs from the evidence locker. The appellate courts overruled Haas' dismissal, ordered the charges reinstated, and the case eventually went to trial in Portland.

Sandy Jones was acquitted of all charges and, a year later, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed Judge Gardner's decision, although Michael was by then no longer a juvenile.

Spence spends only 80 pages of his 435-page book on the trial in Newport, and prefers to recount his many victories in the hearings and trial in Portland; though he does describe Oregon's central coast as a "drab and miserable" place run by a mysterious clan of "good old boys" who are never actually identified.

The book is co-dedicated to Judge Haas, who became fast friends of Spence and called the trial "the high pointof my professional career," and to co-counsel Longo, who had already been paid $85,000 by the state before the final trial started, according to an article in the Nov. 8, 1988 edition of The Oregonian.

As in Spence's 12 other books about his trials and triumphs, there are but a few heroes (Spence, the lawyers who help him, and his clients), and lots of bad guys (me, all the other prosecutors in the cases, the police, the News-Times, The Oregonian, and the vague conspiracy of mythical "good old boys"). Lincoln County residents who lived here in 1985 will find little they recognize in the book, which takes events that happened months, even years, apart and merges them into a single day, apparently for dramatic effect.

In the book, Spence concedes that "If I've learned one thing, it was that trials do not seek the truth, nor are they always intended to deliver justice," and years later, the Oregonian reporter who covered the trial felt so strongly about what he had seen that he wrote an opinion piece titled "Jones' lawyer sought only victory, not truth."

2 comments:

  1. Judge Robert Gardner found Michael Jones, Jr. guilty of manslaughter in the first degree beyond a reasonable doubt.
    If I had misconducted myself the Oregon State Bar would have sanctioned me. They did not.
    Gerry Spence wrote a bitter and wildly inaccurate book that bombed in bookstores because it was just another ego-dance by a once-great trial lawyer whose day has past.
    I am proud of the work I have done as a prosecutor and apparently so are the people of my county who have elected me their district attorney four times. I am also proud of standing up for Will and Monica Gertulla in 1985 and would so the same again today. They were and are the victims of first the Jones family and later Gerry Spence.
    And unlike "James" you know where you can reach me if you have an opinion.

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  2. Readers will note that I leave up even highly critical posts but when people descend to obscenity and slander then they can create their own website.

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