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Robert Lee Kidd

San Francisco antique dealer Albert Clarke, age 71, was killed in his shop on Valencia Street on December 13, 1954. According to reports of the crime, Clarke had been cut, beaten, and burned. Many items from the shop were scattered near Clarke’s body, and police theorized that the perpetrator had been attempting to force Clarke to reveal the location of the substantial amount of cash that was hidden within his shop. Police claimed that two antique swords found at the murder scene had been the murder weapons and that fingerprints and blood of a different type than Clarke’s had been found on these swords.
The initial investigation did not get very far. Several months later, a woman contacted the San Francisco police stating that her co-worker, Gladys Kidd, had confessed to her that Gladys Kidd’s husband, Robert Lee Kidd, had done something terrible in December and had since left town. Recalling Clarke’s unsolved murder, the police tried to locate Robert Lee Kidd, a 31-year-old steelworker and former seaman. They spoke to his friend, who said they often went drinking on Valencia Street. They also spoke to Gladys Kidd, who said she thought Robert Lee Kidd had been exaggerating about committing a bad act because he was in a bout of depression at the time. She had not heard from him in months and told police she did not know where to locate him. Soon, Gladys Kidd vacated her San Francisco address and police were unable to locate her again.
The San Francisco police were notified when Kidd was arrested in a bar fight in Valparaiso, Indiana, in 1960. Police informed Kidd that a thumbprint on one of the swords was a match with his thumbprint. Kidd’s fingerprints were in their file from a previous drunk driving arrest. Kidd denied any knowledge of Clarke’s murder and said he had moved to Indiana in December 1954 for work, not to avoid being connected to the crime. He said Gladys, who was by then living with him in Indiana, had informed him that the police in San Francisco were looking for him. He said that he had then reached out to local police to ask if anything was needed from him, but that the local police had dismissed him. Kidd initially denied having ever been to Clarke’s shop, though he later said that he visited many antique shops and it was possible he had been in Clarke’s. Kidd had Type A blood, which was the same type reported to have been found on the antique sword. He repeatedly requested a lie detector test but his requests were denied.
Kidd was tried for first-degree murder in October 1960. The evidence against him consisted of the thumbprint on the sword and the testimony of a bartender, Ruth Silinari, from the Pink Horse Tavern on the same street as Clarke’s shop. Silinari claimed Kidd had been in the bar the day of the murder, left the bar for a window of time between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m., and then returned. Police claimed the murder had been committed during this one-hour window of absence from the bar. Silinari had identified Kidd in a photo lineup where the photo of Kidd was one that had been taken 12 years before the crime. There was no blood on the sword at issue at the time of the trial, though prosecutors introduced the fact that Type A blood had been found on the sword. Prosecutors claimed the blood had been wiped off at some point. The coroner who had performed the autopsy testified in support of the prosecution's theory that Clarke was killed by the antique swords, though on cross-examination, the coroner conceded that the injuries had not necessarily been inflicted by the antique swords. Kidd was represented by an inexperienced public defender. The defense consisted mainly of claiming that Kidd recalled he and a friend had once been in a San Francisco antique shop and had engaged in a “pretend duel,” during which he got a minor cut. The defense posited that perhaps Kidd’s fingerprints and even blood had come to be on a sword in that manner. The jury found Kidd guilty on October 18, 1962, and he was sentenced to death.
Kidd spent a year on death row at San Quentin before the California State Supreme Court reversed his conviction on November 2, 1961, and granted him a new trial. The basis for the reversal was the refusal of the trial judge to permit the impeachment of the coroner who had identified the sword as the potential murder weapon at trial, when the same coroner had been previously reported in the news as saying the swords were not the weapons used to kill Clarke. In addition, the appeals court found it had been improperly implied to the jury that Kidd had a long criminal history. Kidd’s retrial in April 1962 resulted in a hung jury, and a third trial was scheduled.
In 1962, Gladys Kidd, who was convinced of her husband’s innocence, placed a newspaper advertisement that made headlines. In the ad, Mrs. Kidd offered ten years of service as a cook and maid, free of charge, to any leading attorney who would take on her husband’s case for his third trial. Attorney Vincent Hallinan, whose firm had been involved with Kidd’s appeal but had been too busy to take him on as a client for his retrial, saw the ad. Hallinan responded to her ad in writing: “No woman has to sell herself to get justice. We will defend your husband and ask no fee.”
Kidd’s third trial, in which Hallinan represented him, began in June 1962. At a pretrial hearing, the prosecutor was required to turn over his file of evidence to Hallinan. From this file, Kidd and Hallinan found many significant pieces of evidence that had been suppressed. Among these was a witness statement from an individual who had had seen Clarke alive at a time after 4:00 in afternoon, a time at which Kidd was said to have already murdered Clarke based on Ruth Silinari’s testimony. Additionally suppressed was the fact that Clarke was known to the San Francisco police to have ties to local bootleg gangsters. The file included discussion of three other seemingly promising suspects in the murder, but the prosecutor admitted that none of those three men had been investigated in connection with Clarke’s murder.
At Kidd’s third trial, renowned criminologist Dr. Paul Kirk testified that the antique swords could not have been the murder weapons. After Kidd’s first trial, Dr. Kirk had performed many tests in which he wiped blood off swords similar to the antique ones at issue in this case, and each time he found that traces of the blood penetrated the microscopic interstices of the steel in a way that no amount of wiping could remove. With the theory that the sword was the murder weapon significantly discredited, the prosecution then, for the first time, claimed that the murder weapon was Clarke’s revolver, rather than the swords that had been linked to Kidd. The prosecutor revealed a photo of Clarke’s body with the broken off hammer of a revolver next to it. The hammer fit exactly with the lacerations on Clarke’s face, which the prosecutor had claimed in the first trial had come from the antique sword. Hallinan used the other new evidence to bolster the defense, including the fact that Kidd was said to have returned to the Pink Horse Tavern within an hour with no blood on him after allegedly committing a violent murder and after which time Clarke was spotted alive.
Kidd was acquitted and released in July 1962. He was the first person in the history of California to be acquitted after being sentenced to death.
Following the third trial, the prosecutor in Kidd’s trial, Assistant District Attorney Robert J. Maurer, stated on television that he still believed Kidd was responsible for Clarke’s murder. In 1974, Maurer ran in a judicial election. Based on Maurer’s conduct at Kidd’s three trials and his statement to the news after Kidd’s acquittal, Kidd filed a libel suit against Maurer in 1974, claiming his conviction had been obtained based on “fraud and trickery, the concealing of evidence and deceiving of the jury.” Kidd’s complaint was dismissed, but the publicity surrounding it may likely have contributed to Maurer’s loss in the election.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
County:San Francisco
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1954
Age at the date of crime:31
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct