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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Roy Thompson, Senator Gore, Moman Pruiett, and Gore Vidal

From Washington Lawyer, March/April 2000

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorIf you happen to see on a used book store shelf a copy of the book that is now on my desk, I suggest you buy it. It bears a simple title: Moman Pruiett Criminal Lawyer. My copy disappeared in 1945. I did not see a copy again until Roy Thompson found me the copy that is before me as I write. Moman Pruiett was an Oklahoman "who defended 343 persons charged with murder. The record shows 303 acquittals and the only client to hear the death sentence pronounced was saved by Presidential clemency." That is a record that should be of interest to every lawyer.
     Roy Thompson is a well-known local lawyer of great distinction. When, in a conversation with Roy, I learned his family history commenced in Oklahoma, I asked whether he had ever heard of Moman Pruiett. Roy quickly said, "How did you hear of Moman Pruiett?" I told him I had read Pruiett’s autobiography. Roy then filled me in on a few things. Roy’s father came from Oklahoma to Washington in 1907 to work for Oklahoma’s first senator, Thomas P. Gore. Years later Roy Thompson himself went to work for Senator Gore. When Roy became a member of the D.C. Bar, he developed a law practice that included the representing of Oklahoma Native Americans.
     And now the Senator Gore-Moman Pruiett connection. Senator Gore, in 1913, opposed lawyers who were pressing a claim for large legal fees against the Chickasaws and Choctaws. When Senator Gore could not be bought off, the lawyers decided to frame him by setting up an accusation of attempted rape. The accuser was Minnie Bond. The perpetrators went to the United States Attorney in the District of Columbia and asked that Senator Gore be arraigned on a charge of attempted rape. The U.S. attorney refused. How could he get a conviction of a blind senator on a charge of attempted rape? Minnie Bond’s handlers did not give up. Minnie sued Senator Gore in Oklahoma for the attempted rape and added a count for defamation of character.
     Senator Gore employed the leader of the Oklahoma bar, Moman Pruiett. Pruiett, in his autobiography, gives his closing argument in defense of Senator Gore.
     Here are samples:

In the box where you sit, Gentlemen of the Jury, you have an unusual advantage over my friend and client, the defendant. You can see him but he cannot see you. He is in the dark. He cannot look into your faces and judge from your countenances what manner of men you are, whether you are his friends or his enemies-whether you are all good men and true, or whether any or all of you may not be prejudiced against him by the false tale told you by the lying lips of a vile woman and her still viler co-conspirators and confederates. He has had to depend upon me and upon my judgment concerning all and every one of you.
     This worries me exceedingly. He tells me that he relies upon me implicitly to put his case truthfully and fairly before you in my argument. This also troubles me-for how can he rely confidently upon another man whose face he has never seen?
     There is another thing that stands in my way. My client is versatile and scholarly and has a profound knowledge gained from the many books which his wife has read to him and shown to the eyes of his mind.
     On the other hand, I, his adviser and advocate, am unlettered and without the knowledge of books, for the only book I have studied is the book of human nature. From that book, and that alone, I do believe that I have learned how to judge correctly of a man’s actions by his motives, and, conversely, to discover his underlying motives by considering carefully what he has done. From that book of human nature and a habit of long observation, I have grown to believe that I can very often read correctly the thoughts and emotions of men with whom I become acquainted and whose faces I can see, as I have seen yours for many days. But no man can always interpret correctly the thoughts of others by their faces, nor can man always speak the proper words to his brother.
     And I do believe that when a man is called upon to defend and protect the innocent by the words of his mouth, and he tries earnestly to do so, that help may and does frequently come to him from unknown sources, which enables him to speak effectively-to speak plainly, to call things by their right names, to denounce falsehood and conspiracy and to protect the innocent and the upright from the assaults of all the liars and the pimps and the prostitutes who are still outside of hell.

     Within seven minutes the jury returned its Not Guilty verdict. A contemporary newspaper story described Moman Pruiett’s effort as follows:

Probably the man who has profited most from the Gore case is the man who cared least about profiting. Moman Pruiett, one of the Senator’s attorneys, won a lasting place in the hearts of every Gore sympathizer throughout the country by his burning castigation of the men behind the plaintiff. . . . There is no gentility to Pruiett’s eloquence. Even his sarcasm is blunt and ragged; it has no razor edge. He simply strips a proposition naked and he dresses it with homely, striking word pictures, or peppers it with trip-hammer blows of wilting invective. Naturally, he is deeply loved, desperately hated, and profoundly respected. And above all else, he is immensely interesting.

     If your interest has been triggered, you can follow the subject in Gore Vidal’s autobiography, Palimpsest. You will learn that the blind senator was Gore Vidal’s grandfather.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].