November 24, 2005 -- La Canada Valley Sun

La Caņada's First U.S. Supreme Court Case

By Anita Susan Brenner

In 1935, a barber named Raymond Lisenba of 1329 West Verdugo, La Cañada, purchased a life insurance policy on his wife, a manicurist named Mary. A few months later, Lisenba traveled to Long Beach to purchase snakes, but the snakes were too tame.

He headed back to Pasadena, to a snake farm owned by "Snake Joe" Houtenbrink. He had an accomplice named Mr. Hope purchase two diamond back rattlesnakes, named "Lethal" and "Lightning."

The snakes were not tame.

We know these facts because they are recorded in the California Official Reports, a publication of court opinions, and in the Los Angeles Times, which covered the murder case of Raymond Lisenba, aka Rattlesnake James, of La Cañada.

One issue at trial was "the propriety of the prosecution in bringing into the trial courtroom a box containing rattlesnakes, whose hissing and general effect on the jury was such that the defendant was denied a fair and unbiased trial, according to the defense argument." (LA Times, 1941)

After Rattlesnake James murdered his wife, guests arrived for dinner. Mary Lisenba was nowhere to be found. The guests began looking around the property. Rattlesnake James played dumb. The guests found her body and when he "was told of the gruesome discovery, he cried and otherwise expressed his grief," wrote the appellate justices.

The next day, he returned the snakes, "Lethal" and "Lightning, to Snake Joe's for a partial refund.

The local sheriff arrived. How could Mary have drowned in only six inches of water? Then, Rattlesnake James filed a claim with the Mutual Life Insurance Company. The insurance investigators discovered that Mary was his fifth wife and he had made a similar claim for the drowning of his third wife.

Rattlesnake James was convicted, sentenced to death by hanging, and his case went up to the United States Supreme Court, which affirmed the conviction. The issues included the propriety of the two-day interrogation and the sufficiency of the accomplice testimony by Mr. Hope. The conviction was affirmed, despite an eloquent dissent by Justice Hugo Black, joined by Justice William O. Douglas.

By the time the appeals process was over, San Quentin opened the gas chamber. Rattlesnake James, however, would be executed by hanging.

According the Warden, a nice man named Clinton Duffy, "Estimating the exact length of rope to be used was a tricky business, requiring the hand and eye of an expert." Duffy would have preferred to execute Rattlesnake James in the gas chamber, but the sentence was specific -- death by hanging.

New gallows were built.

Ever the gentleman, Rattlesnake James, wrote what we at the Thursday Club call a "bread and butter letter." "Dear Warden, just a line to thank you for your kindness to me since I have been here ... I want you to know I have no hard feelings against anyone ... I hope to meet you and the Governor in a better world ... "

Despite good intentions, the rope was the wrong length and the execution did not go as planned.

Warden Duffy's description of the execution was deemed unprintable due to its graphic nature. Duffy told the media, "Maybe it would help if you could [print what I said]. It would do the people good to know exactly how their mandate was carried out. Every juror who ever voted for the death penalty, every judge who ever pronounced sentence, every legislator who helped pass the law that made it necessary for us all to go through this ordeal would have been with me today. I have nothing more to say except that this was the most terrible experience of my life and I pray to God I shall never have to repeat it."

Rattlesnake James was the last man hanged in California.

Anita Susan Brenner is the current president of the La Cañada Thursday Club and is a partner in the law firm of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena.

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copyright November 24, 2005, 2005 Anita Brenner, Los Angeles Times La Canada Valley Sun