District Attorney Luis Armijo’s role quickly receded at Carl Magee’s trial in June 1923, and the young Armijo limited his participation to jury selection.
Once a jury was seated, the special prosecutors took over, with former attorney general O.O. Askren taking the lead.
But what exactly were the charges against Carl Magee? Here is found the cunning which Sec Romero’s underlings used to shield the boss from any actual entanglement in the proceedings — the indictment did not charge Magee with defaming Sec Romero, whose name did not even appear in the criminal charge.
Instead, the indictment charged that Magee had defamed Frank W. Parker, the chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, in a Tribune article which appeared June 8, 1923. The article reported that the clerk of the Supreme Court improperly deposited court funds in a Santa Fe bank, and that Chief Justice Parker, a Republican, condoned the improper handling of the court’s deposits.
But neither Magee nor Chief Justice Parker lived in San Miguel County, and this issue was immediately raised by Magee’s attorneys. No matter, Judge Leahy quickly ruled that Magee’s Tribune was distributed in Las Vegas and, therefore, Magee’s alleged libel against the chief justice could be prosecuted here — that jurisdiction was proper in San Miguel County. (The state’s first witness testified that 200 copies of the Tribune had been sold in Las Vegas on June 8, 1923.)
Chief Justice Parker was then called as a witness for the prosecution, and testified that he was not particularly offended by Magee’s article, though he did say the article was unfortunate. Parker also testified he had no knowledge of the indictment against Magee until it was reported in the press, and that he would have “advised the passing of the matter without notice.”
That was the crux of the state’s case, though special prosecutor Askren would later argue to the jury that Magee’s Tribune article about the court funds and Chief Justice Parker was “the most dastardly ever published in New Mexico.”
When it was their turn, Magee’s attorneys immediately made clear where they were headed. Attorney Hanna, himself a former Supreme Court justice, minced no words as he began Magee’s defense, boldly announcing to Judge Leahy, “The people have a right to know if Secundino Romero dominates this court, and the question is whether he controls this court.” Magee’s defense was in the open, and his attorneys would seek to prove that the entire affair was orchestrated and controlled by the boss himself.
But “no one was going to cross-examine Sec that day or any other day,” as recalled later by the Optic reporter who covered the trial. In fact, time after time, Judge Leahy refused to allow Magee’s attorneys to call Secundino Romero to the stand, and he refused to issue a subpoena for Sec’s attendance. At one point Judge Leahy even admonished Magee’s counsel, reminding them that Sec was New Mexico’s U.S. marshal, and very busy traveling the state.
If Magee’s attorneys could not compel Sec’s attendance in court, nor confront him on the witness stand, Magee would do just that in his Tribune, as he continued to post reports and editorials during the trial. In one unyielding editorial, Magee asked “Who is on Trial?” then wrote defiantly, “I am being tried before a judge who is the political right hand bower of Sec Romero, and he bears me the deepest malice.”
Unlike Magee’s Albuquerque Tribune, the El Paso Herald and even the Denver Post — whose reporter was threatened with contempt of court by Judge Leahy — the Optic’s coverage of the trial was confined to a dry account of the proceedings. Milton Nahm, who reported the case for the Optic, later recalled that Optic publisher Hub Kane was afraid that Judge Leahy would hold him in contempt of court if he was critical of the case.
However, it is also likely that Hub Kane’s political sentiments may have been more closely aligned with Sec Romero, as the Optic supported Romero a year later when Lorenzo Delgado and Luis Armijo staged their political coup against Secundino. (Kane acquired the Optic in 1921 and owned the paper until 1947, when he sold it to Orville Priestly for about $100,000.)
In later years, recalling his coverage for the Optic, Nahm disclosed that it was rumored during the trial that Magee was to have been killed in the jury room, by a sheriff’s deputy. According to Nahm’s account, it was Sheriff Lorenzo Delgado who prevented the assassination when he heard of the plot and steered Magee away from his assailant. Whether there was any basis for the rumor will never be known, and the tale is lost to history.
The jury, of course, found Magee guilty. Judge Leahy immediately looked down from his bench, and said: “Carl C. Magee, stand up. Have you anything to say why judgment and sentence should not be imposed upon you?”
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.