In 1934, a transcript was made in a District Court in Minnesota. When Dillinger’s French-Indian girlfriend, Evelyn “Billie” Frechette was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the trial transcript became the first official record of the Dillinger gang’s activities.
When reporter Lewis F. Ayer began the trial, he knew it was high-profile and destined for historical relevance. Yet, given the atmosphere of laxity regarding the rights of defendants in his era, he could not have predicted that judicial misconduct would be diagnosed from within its 681 pages.
His transcript surfaced 75 years later to reveal violations of the constitutional rights of the Defendant Evelyn Frechette. Although it was an era in policing predating Miranda Warnings, J. Edgar Hoover’s field agents were aware that prisoners had the right to a phone call. The term “incommunicado” appeared in Frechette’s transcript, alluding to the fact that she was denied the right to a phone call when arrested. It was an era when a gangster’s girlfriend could not expect fair treatment from law enforcement.
A summer blockbuster started a ripple that resonated toward the ivory towers of law school. In 2009, the Michael Mann film “Public Enemies” was released. Starring actor Johnny Depp, it introduced Depression-era bank robber and prison escapee John Dillinger to a new generation of Americans weaned on Tony Soprano. To meet the demand for information on Dillinger, several landmark organizations in the Midwest developed forums on the subject of the 1930s Midwest Crime Wave. Towns that had once been the site of bank robberies, trials and daring shootouts would offer reenactments and lectures by police officers, historians and writers.
In the course of developing a program, the St. Paul Landmark Commission opened an exhibit in the Federal courthouse that had been the venue for the trial of Evelyn Frechette. A building that had sat in ruin for decades, it was now renovated and exhibiting in Room 317, the venue of her trial on Federal harboring charges. In conjunction, The St. Paul Landmark Commission also put into the planning stages, a mock trial of Frechette to be broadcast over the internet for law students nationwide. This was to be followed by a law school debate over the issues of constitutionality in the trial. The Landmark Commission was able to locate the transcript. The caption was entitled: U.S. District Court: District of Minnesota: Third Division -- United States of America v. Clayton E. May, Evelyn Frechette, alias Mrs. John Dillinger, et al.
Lewis Ayer’s indexed transcript preserved the testimony of over 40 witnesses for the prosecution. The trial lasted for a week and a half in May of 1934. Frechette stood accused of harboring Dillinger while he was a Federal fugitive. She was indicted for conspiring with Dr. Clayton E. May and his nurse, Augusta Salt, both of whom treated a gunshot wound that Dillinger sustained. The burden of proof was on the Federal Government to prove that Frechette was living with Dillinger in Minneapolis before being chased out of the apartment by Federal agents and local detectives in late March, 1934. The Government alleged that with police firing at them from the hallway, Evelyn had raced their automobile down an alley with the wounded Dillinger in the back seat.
The transcript offered a rare glimpse into the accusations of the 3rd degree interrogation techniques that the F.B.I. used on Frechette after arresting her in Chicago. She had always been vocal about her mistreatment after her arrest occurred in April, 1934. She told her lawyers that in addition to being held incommunicado and kicked and slapped around, she’d been denied food, water, sanitary facilities and a chair or bed, for at least two and a half days, a fact that was later corroborated by eyewitnesses who worked within the F.B.I.
No one who watched the film “Public Enemies” could forget the harrowing depiction of the interrogation of Frechette at the hands of a pugilistic Federal agent. Was it pure “Hollywood” or steeped in fact?