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Phil Rohan


Along with co-defendants Harvey Lesher and Mike Garvey, 19-year-old Phil Rohan was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the November 1, 1927 murder of Los Angeles drug store owner A.R. Miles. Rohan, Garvey, and Lesher were declared innocent, pardoned and released after each spending approximately two years and eight months incarcerated in county jail and San Quentin state prison. The key evidence leading to their convictions was the eyewitness testimony of a 10-year-old boy. In recommending pardons for Rohan, Garvey, and Lesher, the California Advisory Pardon Board cited the conclusions of a grand jury convened to reexamine the case. In particular, the grand jury found that the young eyewitness had most likely not been present at the scene when the crime occurred and that his testimony was simply the honest romancing of a child.
 
Shortly after 10 p.m. on November 1, 1927, Roberta Scriver stopped in to make a purchase at the drug store at 2329 West Jefferson Street in Los Angeles. Curious to find the counter unattended, she called out several times for assistance. Eventually, her calls drew A. H. Miles, the father of the proprietor, who was equally surprised that no one was watching the store. Upon investigation, the elder Miles discovered his son, A. R. Miles, in the back room of the store. The younger Miles was unconscious and bleeding from severe head wounds. Although an ambulance was quickly summoned, the druggist died of his injuries shortly thereafter.
 
The police took statements from eyewitnesses at the scene. A.H. Miles told police that his son’s hands and feet had been bound with wire and that thirty-six dollars had been taken from the store’s cash register. Roberta Scriver reported seeing a person come out of the store on a “kind of a trot” and get into the rear seat of a Hudson sedan, in which two other men were waiting. A second eyewitness, 10-year-old Eddie Yates, was apparently passing the store on his way home from a picture show when he saw a Hudson sedan drive up. The young Mr. Yates told police that he had watched three men get out of the car and enter the store. Watching through the store window, Yates said he saw one of the men ask the victim for a free cigar. When the victim refused and went into a room at the back of the store, Yates said the three men followed him.  Yates said that about five minutes later the men came out in a hurry, got into their car, and drove away. These statements, especially the story told by Eddie Yates, set the police investigation in motion searching for three robbers in a Hudson sedan.
 
About a week into the investigation, the police caught a break when Mr. H.S. Walton came forward to report that an acquaintance of his named Harvey Lesher had confessed to the killing. The confession had apparently been made in the early morning of November 8, 1927, when Lesher was ascending from a drunken stupor after a night of drinking. Walton quoted Lesher as saying “I pulled that West Jefferson job – I hit Miles over the head and when he came to and called me ‘Heine’ I finished him off with my feet.” Lesher and his wife Nona apparently were part of a small-time criminal gang that also included Lesher’s half-brother, Phil Rohan, and another friend named Mike Garvey. Around the time of the Miles killing, Nona had been arrested for a string of crimes wherein she allegedly used a variety of wigs to disguise herself while passing bad checks. On the basis of Walton’s story, Lesher, Rohan, and Garvey were quickly arrested.
 
Eddie Yates was brought to the police station a number of times to try to identify the men he had seen in the drug store on November 1. Eventually he identified Phil Rohan as one of the men he saw leaving the drug store. Yates also told police that Lesher and Garvey resembled the two men who had followed Rohan out of the store. On December 6, 1927, after reviewing the evidence presented by the prosecution, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury indicted Garvey, Lesher and Rohan on charges of first-degree murder and first-degree burglary. Upon arraignment, all three pled not guilty to all charges and their trial was set for January 9, 1928.
 
The case was tried before a jury. As expected, the testimony of Yates, Scriver and Walton formed the crux of the prosecution’s case against the three men. On January 11, 1928, following a three-day trial and an hour and fifteen minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty on all charges for each of the defendants and recommended sentences of life imprisonment.
 
However, the day after the guilty verdict was delivered, Walton filed an affidavit recanting his trial testimony. In the affidavit, Walton asserted that he had been drunk on the night of the alleged confession and that he may have imagined the words that he previously attributed to Lesher. Walton apparently told questioning officers that he had only a hazy recollection of the incident and did not wish to testify because he was so intoxicated on the night in question. The affidavit stated that the officers informed Walton that the defendants implicated him in several robberies and extortions, but that if Walton would testify before the grand jury the charges would be dropped. The affidavit also declared that Walton knew the men to be innocent and that he was with them in their home until about 9:30 p.m. on the night of the murder. However, in considering and denying a defense motion for a new trial, the court concluded that this new evidence was not sufficiently compelling. The defendants received sentences of life imprisonment on the murder convictions and concurrent sentences of seven years to life on the first-degree burglary charges.
 
In the weeks following the trial, appellate counsel for the defendants, William T. Kendrick, Jr., submitted several affidavits from a variety of witnesses that generally called into question the trial testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses. Among the many new affidavits were statements from a former police officer and Lesher’s neighbor, as well as the officer’s wife, declaring that they believed the three convicted men were at home on the night of the murder. It was also determined that the fingerprints found at the scene did not match the prints of the three men.
 
Nevertheless, in August 1928, the court of appeals affirmed the verdict, finding no reversible error. Despite this setback, Kendrick persisted in his efforts to obtain a new hearing based on affidavits obtained subsequent to trial that cast doubt on the trial evidence. Eventually, Roberta Scriver, one of the key witnesses during the original trial, participated in a new lineup and this time identified a prisoner serving a sentence on an unrelated charge as one of the men she saw rush from the store after A.R. Miles was killed. Immediately after this development, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury reopened the case to evaluate the new evidence and affidavits.  Despite Eddie Yates’s unshakeable belief in his own account of the crime, the Grand Jury ultimately concluded that Yates probably did not arrive at the drug store until about the same time as the ambulance and that his testimony was the honest romancing of a child. The Grand Jury evidence was presented to California Governor Clement C. Young and then referred by him to the Advisory Pardon Board of California.
 
In April of 1930, following the conclusion of its own investigation into the crime, the Advisory Pardon Board submitted a report to the Governor concluding that the defendants were entirely innocent of the crimes and recommending that all three men be immediately pardoned. Relying on this report, on June 20, 1930, Governor Young granted full pardons to Garvey, Lesher and Rohan. The men were released from San Quentin State Prison the next day.
 
Represented by Mr. Kendrick and his father, William Kendrick. Sr., the three men filed a claim with the California Board of Control under a state law that allowed for damages due to improper imprisonment. This statute, which allowed a maximum recovery from the state of $5,000 per defendant, was intended to compensate individuals who were erroneously convicted and imprisoned in California. Their claim was the first under the law since its passage eighteen years prior. The Board of Control rejected the men’s claims, stating that the guilty verdict had been returned by the jury on the basis of evidence presented to the court by the child and, therefore, the conviction was not erroneous.
 
Not satisfied with this result, the attorneys filed a petition for rehearing with the California Board of Control. Upon rehearing the claim, the Board of Control affirmed its denial of claims for damages by Lesher and Garvey. The Board awarded Rohan compensation of $1,692. In refusing compensation to Garvey and Lesher, the Board of Control maintained that the men were of such unsavory character that it was “not satisfied that Harvey Lesher and Mike Garvey did not by acts or omissions, negligently bring about their arrests and convictions.” The Board of Control apparently gave no evidence to support this assertion.
 
-  Researched by Damon McLean
State:CA
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1927
Convicted:1928
Exonerated:1930
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct