In August 1958, the nude body of 47-year-old Elvira Hay was found in the bathtub in a communal bathroom at the Venice Hotel, where she was living at the time of her death. Hay had been strangled and sexually assaulted. John Jones reported that he had seen Hay and her common law husband, 52-year-old John Henry “Tennessee” Fry, arguing the evening before her death and that Fry had physically assaulted Hay during the argument.
Based on Jones’s statement, a heavily intoxicated Fry was located and arrested. Fry claimed to have been too drunk to remember what had happened the previous night, including whether or not he had been involved in Hay’s death. Fearful of more serious charges, Fry eventually confessed to the manslaughter of Hay. On December 10, 1958, Fry was sentenced to one to ten years in prison, and he began serving his time at San Quentin.
On June 4, 1959, a man approached a police officer and handed him keys to a hotel room located near the Venice Hotel. The man, a 32-year-old black janitor named Richard T. Cooper, stated that the dead body of Earlean Mosley could be found in the hotel room. Police went to the hotel room and found Mosley’s body there.
Cooper confessed that he had not only strangled and killed Earlean Mosley, he had also strangled and killed Elvira Hay the previous year. Cooper said that he had had a sexual relationship with Hay in the past and that she had called him on the night of her fight with Fry, fearful that Fry would hurt her. When Hay had then refused to have sex with Cooper that night, he had strangled and killed her and then raped her after she was dead. He had disposed of her body in the bathtub the following morning. He provided police with other accurate details of her death, leaving them wholly convinced that he was the true killer.
With a request from the district attorney that Fry’s case be expedited through clemency procedures, Fry was pardoned by Governor Edmund G. Brown on June 16, 1959, and immediately released from prison. He was awarded $3,000 by the State of California for his months of wrongful imprisonment. On July 8, 1960, Richard Cooper was executed for the murders of Earlean Mosley and Elvira Hay.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.