When the trial of alleged murderer Vorhes Newton opened at the Redwood City courthouse in October 1946, the heinous crime had slipped from the front pages of the newspapers.
Short summaries of the Newton murders—Vorhes was accused of killing his two little daughters and for the attempted murder of his wife, Lorraine, all found in a remote Montara canyon– appeared on the same page as the trials of convicted abortionists and the closings of illegal “abortion mills”. Was there a connection?
But before the prosecution and defense faced off in the Newton trial, 115 potential jurors were called to the Redwood City courthouse and after two-and-half days “nine housewives and three men” were selected to sit in the jury box.
To the press, both legal adversaries exuded optimism. Fred M. Wycoff, the prosecutor, who had worked the Newton case since it broke over the summer, believed his detective, Frank Marlowe– a name worthy of a mystery novel– had handed him a “honey of a case”.
His star witness, Wycoff announced, was to be Newton’s 21-year-old wife, Lorraine.
Criminal Defense Attorney Leo R. Friedman, was just as famous for his ability to delay and delay as he was for changing his client’s venues. On the behalf of Newton, he was asking the court to move the case from Redwood City to San Jose– and he revealed to reporters that his strategy would include the controversial Jeckyll and Hyde theory of dual personalities, backed up with psychiatric testimony, to explain the horrific actions of Vorhes Newton.
Newton had pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.
In his opening statement, Fred Wycoff fascinated the jury by linking the case with the popular 1946 movie, “The Postman Always Ring Twice”, starring gorgeous Lana Turner. Wycoff said the Newtons saw the film the night before the murders and claimed that Vorhes was influenced by Lana Turner’s character, Cora Smith, who smashed a bottle over her husband’s head. Newton’s children were killed with a milk bottle found at the scene.
Wycoff also elaborated on what happened during the hours before the murders. He told the jury that Lorraine Newton had been pregnant when Vorhes drove her and the children to the Coastside where he suggested Lorraine have an abortion. When she balked, he beat his wife and threw her over a 12-foot embankment. Then he killed the children and attempted to bury them. Police caught up with Vorhes at Lake Tahoe where he claimed to have no memory of the crimes, adding that it wasn’t in his nature to kill anyone.
Called to the witness stand were Vorhes’s sister and brother-in-law. Newton had borrowed their car to take his wife and children on the death ride and returned it later the same day looking as if nothing had happened. To the Petermans them he had always seemed a loving father and caring husband. They drove Vorhes to the train believing he was going to San Francisco to join Lorraine and the kids.
Everyone in the courtroom anticipated Lorraine Newton’s damaging testimony. She had survived her husband’s brutal attacks, suffering a miscarriage afterwards. Although most folks sympathized with her, she had her detractors, too. She was criticized for sounding “strangely impersonal” and for “not showing enough emotion”.
But Lorraine Newton never took the witness stand.
The trial had barely gotten started when shocking news paralyzed the courtroom: Vorhes Newton had hung himself in his cell on the third floor of the Redwood City jail.
There ensued a discussion of what to do next with the Prosecutor Wycoff suggesting the case be dismissed. Before that happened, Newton’s counsel, Leo Friedman made a statement, saying that his client told him repeatedly he had no memory of the events of the day of the murders–and that he had turned up evidence pointing as much to Newton’s innocence as guilt.
Wycoff said, “Newton is now before a greater Judge. He has left this vale of tears.”
After the trial was dismissed a few hours later, Lorraine Newton walked into the District Attorney’s office and said, in what tone we are not told: “I am sorry justice was not permitted to run its course.”
As the case was dismissed, another rumor was making the rounds: Supposedly Newton had said, “If I ever become convinced I did it, I’ll hang myself.”