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Blog: The Thin Alibi of Michael Milligan

Was Michael Milligan too drunk to be held responsible for murder?
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According to Michael Milligan, the murder of Camilla Smith in South San Francisco on June 8, 1936, was a tragedy that could not have been prevented. He could not have planned the murder, he said, because he was too drunk at the time to have premeditated anything.

Initially, Milligan met Smith at the latter’s pet store in October of 1935. He did odd jobs around the place until the day when Smith made improper suggestions to him. He rebuffed her advances which, according to Milligan, angered Smith and caused her to tell him: “I’ll get even with you.” Smith then began spreading gossip about Milligan and how his first wife never legally married and that Milligan had killed her.

Of the crime of murdering Smith, Milligan claimed that he was upset about Smith’s lies, got drunk with some friends, woke up in a field, bought a newspaper, discovered he was a wanted man, went home and got his gun and then fled to Nevada where he was captured and brought back to San Mateo County’s superior court building.

His case went to trial in mid-November of 1937.

Eyewitnesses hurt his case. Three witnesses stated that Milligan wasn’t even slightly drunk at the time of the shooting. Another witness heard Milligan shout at the time of the crime: “I’ll teach you to say I killed my wife!”

The details of the crime were eagerly pored over by an eager audience.

The defense tried to portray Milligan as an impaired individual who could not have planned out a conscious killing: “If he committed an offense, he was out of his head, and didn’t know what he was doing. He was no more responsible for what he did that day than a child or an idiot because he knew not what he was doing.” The judge contradicted that by quoting a section of an applicable law: “No act committed by a person while in a state of voluntary intoxication, should you find such to exist, is less criminal by reason of his having been in such condition.”

After a presentation of evidence, the judge gave the jury of nine women and three men instructions for four possible verdicts: first-degree murder, first-degree murder with mercy recommendation, second-degree murder, or acquittal. The judge took manslaughter out of the picture.

The jury foreman asked the judge if they could know if parole was possible for prisoners receiving life sentences. The judge told the jury it was irrelevant - the jury was solely there to decide guilt or innocence, not to be concerned about sentencing.

The Times reported on Nov. 16, 1937, that Milligan had been convicted of first-degree murder with a mercy recommendation.

Taking the death penalty off the table would provide small comfort to Milligan. He told authorities after his sentencing: “I’d rather be dead than go and live with hardened criminals for the rest of my life.” He later wrote a poem while incarcerated that began: “Death, the poor man’s dearest friend, the kindest and the best.”

Douglas MacGowan

About the Author: Douglas MacGowan

Doug MacGowan has authored seven books and countless articles, mainly about history and true crime. He has been a resident of Redwood City since 2000.
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