In 1934, a transcript was made in a District Court in Minnesota. When Dillinger’s French-Indian girlfriend, Evelyn “Billie” Frechette was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the trial transcript became the first official record of the Dillinger gang’s activities.
When reporter Lewis F. Ayer began the trial, he knew it was high-profile and destined for historical relevance. Yet, given the atmosphere of laxity regarding the rights of defendants in his era, he could not have predicted that judicial misconduct would be diagnosed from within its 681 pages.
His transcript surfaced 75 years later to reveal violations of the constitutional rights of the Defendant Evelyn Frechette. Although it was an era in policing predating Miranda Warnings, J. Edgar Hoover’s field agents were aware that prisoners had the right to a phone call. The term “incommunicado” appeared in Frechette’s transcript, alluding to the fact that she was denied the right to a phone call when arrested. It was an era when a gangster’s girlfriend could not expect fair treatment from law enforcement.
A summer blockbuster started a ripple that resonated toward the ivory towers of law school. In 2009, the Michael Mann film “Public Enemies” was released. Starring actor Johnny Depp, it introduced Depression-era bank robber and prison escapee John Dillinger to a new generation of Americans weaned on Tony Soprano. To meet the demand for information on Dillinger, several landmark organizations in the Midwest developed forums on the subject of the 1930s Midwest Crime Wave. Towns that had once been the site of bank robberies, trials and daring shootouts would offer reenactments and lectures by police officers, historians and writers.
In the course of developing a program, the St. Paul Landmark Commission opened an exhibit in the Federal courthouse that had been the venue for the trial of Evelyn Frechette. A building that had sat in ruin for decades, it was now renovated and exhibiting in Room 317, the venue of her trial on Federal harboring charges. In conjunction, The St. Paul Landmark Commission also put into the planning stages, a mock trial of Frechette to be broadcast over the internet for law students nationwide. This was to be followed by a law school debate over the issues of constitutionality in the trial. The Landmark Commission was able to locate the transcript. The caption was entitled: U.S. District Court: District of Minnesota: Third Division -- United States of America v. Clayton E. May, Evelyn Frechette, alias Mrs. John Dillinger, et al.
Lewis Ayer’s indexed transcript preserved the testimony of over 40 witnesses for the prosecution. The trial lasted for a week and a half in May of 1934. Frechette stood accused of harboring Dillinger while he was a Federal fugitive. She was indicted for conspiring with Dr. Clayton E. May and his nurse, Augusta Salt, both of whom treated a gunshot wound that Dillinger sustained. The burden of proof was on the Federal Government to prove that Frechette was living with Dillinger in Minneapolis before being chased out of the apartment by Federal agents and local detectives in late March, 1934. The Government alleged that with police firing at them from the hallway, Evelyn had raced their automobile down an alley with the wounded Dillinger in the back seat.
The transcript offered a rare glimpse into the accusations of the 3rd degree interrogation techniques that the F.B.I. used on Frechette after arresting her in Chicago. She had always been vocal about her mistreatment after her arrest occurred in April, 1934. She told her lawyers that in addition to being held incommunicado and kicked and slapped around, she’d been denied food, water, sanitary facilities and a chair or bed, for at least two and a half days, a fact that was later corroborated by eyewitnesses who worked within the F.B.I.
No one who watched the film “Public Enemies” could forget the harrowing depiction of the interrogation of Frechette at the hands of a pugilistic Federal agent. Was it pure “Hollywood” or steeped in fact?
In Frechette’s direct-examination, the testimony reveals the following:
Q. “Mr. Reinecke did not strike you, did he, Miss Frechette?
A. He did.
Q. He did?
A. Yes, sir.
A. A couple of times.”
The cross-examination of Harold Reinecke, a field agent in the Chicago office of the F.B.I., offers this version:
Q. “Isn’t it a fact, Mr. Reinecke, that you yourself slapped this girl in the
A. I did not slap this girl at any time. I would take the tips of my
fingers . . . and I raised up her chin, and I said, ‘Please, Evelyn, look at me when you are telling me, and answering my questions.’
Every question was answered by ‘I don’t know.’ I heard that until it rang in my ears.”
The issues of constitutionality that were studied by the law students in the 2009 mock trial centered around Judge Gunnar Nordbye’s jury charge. As a result of the mock trial, it has become acknowledged that Frechette’s constitutional right to fair treatment by the bench was compromised by Judge Nordbye’s downplaying of Frechettte’s defense in favor of a lengthy reiteration of the prosecution’s summation. The judge jumped to a conclusion out of his own opinion when he declared that “. . . the defendant Frechette knew, of course, at all times the identity of John Dillinger.”
As though to leave no question in the collective minds of the twelve men who comprised the jury, Judge Nordbye admonished them to “consider . . . her alleged admission that the Federal men were looking for Dillinger.”
Upon the conclusion of the jury charge, Evelyn’s attorney, Jerome Hoffman, declared that “the Court’s comments on the evidence and testimony . . . [was] argumentative and prejudicial to the Defendant Frechette.” The transcript revealed that Hoffman was being paid from a $50.00 yearly stipend generated from a lumber mill on the Menominee Reservation.
The prosecution presented an overwhelming case against her. Frechette produced no witnesses, except to testify in her own defense. The jury returned a verdict of guilty. Judge Nordbye sentenced Frechette to a fine of $1,000 and a term of two years in a Federal Penitentiary.
On July 11, 1934, Lewis Ayer completed the transcript upon the request of Frechette’s attorney, who had ordered it for the appeal. On the company letterhead of “Associated Shorthand Reporters,” Mr. Ayer billed for 3 copies at 681 pages, 75 cents per page, for a total of $510.75. That same month, John Dillinger was shot to death at Chicago’s Biograph Theater by the F.B.I. Two months later, Evelyn Frechette’s appeal was dismissed. She served her entire sentence.
With Evelyn Frechette fading from the headlines, Mr. Ayer put the case to rest. The court reporter couldn’t have imagined, as he produced his transcript during that dramatic summer of 1934, that his product would be used to educate law students, 75 years later, on issues of constitutional law.