In late summer 1929, Harry D. McDonald, a confessed bootlegger with a long criminal history, was arrested in Los Angeles County, California, on charges of receiving stolen property. Following his arrest, McDonald informed the district attorney that he had been involved in a bribery scheme involving upwards of fifty members of the Los Angeles Police Department, including Detectives Miles H. Ledbetter and Walter (Bob) E. Evans. McDonald claimed that these officers permitted him to run his bootlegging operation without arrest, but that they were continually requiring payments from him for this police protection.
McDonald claimed that in September 1928, he had paid $400 to purchase stolen diamonds from his associates, Jack Hawkins and Zeke Hays, but that LAPD Detectives Ledbetter and Evans learned of this diamond transaction. McDonald claimed that Ledbetter and Evans had then demanded McDonald pay them $1,000 to avoid arrest, but that they had ultimately accepted a payment of $750 from McDonald.
Ledbetter and Evans were indicted on charges of accepting bribes and were jointly tried in October 1929. The prosecution’s case was based primarily on testimony from Harry McDonald, as well as on testimony from McDonald’s wife, Olive McDonald, and their maid, Betsy Pierce, corroborating that the payment had taken place in their presence. Evans and Ledbetter denied knowing anything about the diamond transaction at issue and maintained that they had not accepted a $750 payment from McDonald, nor even had contact with him in the time period when McDonald claimed the payment took place. They claimed that they had interacted with McDonald in early July regarding a different diamond theft, though the prosecution’s witnesses claimed McDonald had been out of town in early July.
The jury returned guilty verdicts for both Ledbetter and Evans on October 25, 1929, and the two men were each sentenced to one to fourteen years in San Quentin prison.
LAPD officers who doubted McDonald’s claims continued to investigate the alleged diamond transaction and related payment. New evidence was found that showed McDonald, his wife, and their maid had all lied on the stand. Although these three witnesses had testified that McDonald was out of town in early July when Evans and Ledbetter claimed to have visited him, records showed his signature for a safe deposit box at a local Los Angeles bank on one of the days he was allegedly out of town. The LAPD daily detective reports (not included as evidence in original trial for reasons unknown) also provided post-conviction evidence that McDonald’s statements regarding the time frame of his meeting with the detectives were inaccurate and that the testimony of McDonald, his wife, and their maid was false.
Evans and Ledbetter were given full and unconditional pardons by California Governor C.C. Young on January 5, 1931. They were reinstated to their positions with the LAPD and each received several thousand dollars as compensation for the erroneous convictions.
- 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.