Characteristics: Kidnapping – Rape
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: April 28, 1955
Date of arrest: July 16, 1955
Date of birth: February 8, 1928
Victim profile: Stephanie Bryan (female, 14)
Method of murder: Beating
Location: Alameda County, California, USA
Status: Executed by asphyxiation-gas on March 15, 1957
Burton W. Abbott was a 27 year old University of California at Berkeley accounting student living in Oakland, California who was tried for the rape and murder of 14-year old Stephanie Bryan in November of 1955. He was convicted and sentenced to death in California’s gas chamber in March of 1957. But as he was being executed, a stay of execution was granted.
Stephanie Bryan, 14 years old, was last seen on April 28, 1955 on the way home from school taking her usual short cut through the parking lot of the Claremont Hotel. A large-scale search failed to find her. in July 1955 Georgia Abbott reported that she found purse and an ID card belonging to the girl, in the basement of the home she shared with her husband, Burton Abbott, and his mother, Elsie Abbott. In interviewing the Abbotts, the police found that Elsie Abbott had found the purse earlier but did not connect it with the case.
Police subsequently dug up Stephanie’s glasses, a brassiere and other evidence. No one in the family could account for how the victim’s personal effects came to be in the basement. Burton Abbott stated he was driving to the family’s cabin 285 miles away when Stephanie disappeared. Two weeks later the victim’s body was found in a shallow grave a few hundred feet from the cabin. Shortly after, Abbott was charged with her rape and murder.
The trial was one of the mostly highly publicized in California history. The prosecution hypotheses was that Abbott had attempted to rape the victim and killed her when she resisted. Abbott pled not guilty.
At the trial all the evidence produced was circumstantial and nothing directly connected Abbott with Stephanie Bryant’s death. The prosecution used emotion to overcome the lack of direct evidence by such strategies as showing the jury the rotten clothes from the victim’s body and waving her brassiere and panties, making implications he could not prove.
Abbott explained that in May the basement of the house had been used as a polling site with many people having access. Although the prosecution charged attempted rape, the pathologist testified that the body was too decomposed to evaluate it for evidence of sexual assault.
Abbott took the stand and testified for four days, testifying in a calm and poised manner. He spoke in a soft voice and was steadfast in his denials of any knowledge of the crime. He said it was all a “monstrous frame-up”. The jury was out seven days before it returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder. The judge imposed the death sentence.
As provided by California law, there was an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of California. In detailed opinion describing the facts of the case and reciting the evidence that had been presented at trial, the court affirmed the conviction and sentence of death.
Abbott was incarcerated at San Quentin to await execution. His lawyers worked to commute his sentence for over a year.
On March 15, 1957, the day of the execution which was scheduled for 11:00 pm, his attorney appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, which was denied, and then tried to contact the governor of California, Goodwin J. Knight, but the governor was at sea on a naval ship and out of reach of the telephone. The attorney arranged with a TV station to broadcast a plea to the governor.
At 9:02 Governor Knight granted one hour’s stay by telephone. Within six minutes a writ of habeas corpus was presented to the Supreme Court of California but at 10:42 am the petition was denied. The attorney tried again with an appeal to the Federal District Court but the court refused a further postponement at 10:50 am. At 11:12 am Governor Knight was reached again and agreed to another stay.
At 11:15 am Abbott was led to the gas chamber and strapped in the chair while the governor was contacting the warden by telephone. The executioner pulled the lever three minutes later and 16 pellets of sodium cyanide dropped into the sulfuric acid as Governor Knight reached the prison warden to stay the execution. The warden told him it was too late, and Abbott died at the age of 29 as the governor hung up the telephone.
This case demonstrates the set of confused legal procedures in place regarding appeals. The federal law allows an attorney 90 days to file for a writ of certiorari after a State Supreme Court’s refusal of a rehearing.
However, the State Court set the date for Abbott’s execution for two weeks before the 90-day limit. Thus, Abbott was executed with the writ still on file and, therefore, the possibility still existed that Abbott might have won a new trial.
The case also renewed the debate over the death penalty, especially when it is based on circumstantial evidence alone.