Burton Abbott

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Burton W. Abbott
Born (1928-02-08)February 8, 1928
Oregon, United States
Died March 15, 1957(1957-03-15) (aged 29)
San Quentin State Prison, California, United States
Occupation Student
Criminal penalty Death by gas chamber
Criminal status Deceased
Spouse(s) Georgia Abbott
Parent(s) Elsie (Moore) Abbott
Conviction(s) Kidnapping and murder

Burton Wilbur Abbott (February 8, 1928 – March 15, 1957)[1] was a University of California at Berkeley accounting student living in Alameda, California, who was tried for the rape and murder of 14-year-old Stephanie Bryan in November 1955. Although the evidence against him was entirely circumstantial, including Stephanie's body found buried near Abbott's upstate cabin and her purse and ID found in the basement of his home, he was convicted and sentenced to death in California's gas chamber. On March 15, 1957 a (second) one hour stay of execution from the governor of California was communicated to the prison just moments too late to halt his execution, which had already begun.

The case is often cited as one raising serious questions as to the appropriateness of condemning a person based on circumstantial evidence alone.[2]


Stephanie Bryan was last seen on April 28, 1955, on the way home from school taking her usual shortcut through the parking lot of the Claremont Hotel. A large-scale search failed to find her. Then in mid-July, Georgia Abbott, Burton Abbott's cosmetologist wife, reported finding personal effects which had belonged to the girl, including a purse and an ID card, in the basement of the Abbott's home in Alameda. The basement was in the home she shared with her husband, their son Christopher, and his mother, Elsie Abbott (née Moore). In interviewing the Abbotts, the police learned that Elsie Abbott had found the purse earlier, but did not connect it with the case.[3]

Police subsequently recovered Stephanie's glasses, a brassiere, and other evidence in the basement. No one in the family could account for how the victim's personal effects came to be in the basement. Burton Abbott stated he was driving to the family's cabin 285 miles away near Weaverville, California, in Trinity County, when Stephanie disappeared.[citation needed] On July 20, 1955, the victim's body was found by San Francisco Examiner reporter Ed Montgomery[4] in a shallow grave a few hundred feet from the cabin. Shortly after, Abbott was charged with her rape and murder.[2][5]


The trial was one of the most highly publicized in California history.[6] The prosecution hypothesis was that Abbott had attempted to rape the victim and killed her when she resisted. Abbott pleaded not guilty. At the trial all the evidence produced was circumstantial and nothing directly connected Abbott with Stephanie Bryan's death. The prosecution used emotion to overcome the lack of direct evidence by such strategies as showing the jury the rotten clothes from the victim's body and waving her brassiere and panties, making implications it could not prove. Abbott explained that in May, the basement of the house had been used as a polling site with many people having access. Although the prosecution charged attempted rape, the pathologist testified that the body was too decomposed to evaluate it for evidence of sexual assault.[2]

Abbott took the stand and testified for four days, testifying in a calm and poised manner. He spoke in a soft voice and was steadfast in his denials of any knowledge of the crime.[7] He said it was all a "monstrous frame-up". The jury was out seven days before it returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder. The judge imposed the death sentence.[2]

As provided by California law, there was an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of California. In a detailed opinion describing the facts of the case and reciting the evidence that had been presented at trial, the court affirmed the conviction and sentence of death.[8]


Abbott was incarcerated at San Quentin to await execution. His lawyers worked to commute his sentence for over a year. On March 15, 1957, the day of the execution which was scheduled for 11:00 am, his attorney appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, which was denied, and then tried to contact the governor of California, Goodwin J. Knight, but the governor was at sea on a naval ship and out of reach of the telephone. The attorney arranged with a TV station to broadcast a plea to the governor. At 9:02 Governor Knight granted one hour's stay by telephone. Within six minutes a writ of habeas corpus was presented to the Supreme Court of California but at 10:42 am the petition was denied. The attorney tried again with an appeal to the Federal District Court but the court refused a further postponement at 10:50 am. At 11:12 am Governor Knight was reached again and agreed to another stay. At 11:15 am Abbott was led to the gas chamber and strapped in the chair while the governor was contacting the warden by telephone. The executioner pulled the lever three minutes later and 16 pellets of sodium cyanide dropped into the sulfuric acid as Governor Knight reached the prison warden to stay the execution. The warden told him it was too late, and Abbott died at the age of 29 as the governor hung up the telephone.[9]


This case demonstrates the confusion of the set of legal procedures in place regarding appeals. The federal law allows an attorney 90 days to file for a writ of certiorari after a State Supreme Court's refusal of a rehearing. However, the State Court set the date for Abbott's execution for two weeks before the 90-day limit. Thus, Abbott was executed with the writ still on file and, therefore, the possibility still existed that Abbott might have won a new trial.[9]

The case also renewed the debate over the death penalty, especially when it is based on circumstantial evidence alone, no matter how strong. Police had also investigated other family members, friends and aquaintances who had access to the basement and knew the location of the cabin, including: the Abbott's landlord, Clyde Wood; Burton Abbott's older brother, Harold; the Abbott's next door neighbor and Georgia Abbott's close friend, Otto Dezman.[10]

However, shortly before his execution, Abbott spoke to the doctor at San Quentin. The doctor said that when he asked Abbott about the crime, he said "I can't admit it Doc, think of what it would do to my mother, she couldn't take it".[2]


  1. ^ California Death Records, 1940-1997.
  2. ^ a b c d e Knappman, Edward W. (1994). Great American Trials. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press. pp. 475–477. ISBN 0-8103-9134-1. 
  3. ^ "Elsie Abbot, who defended killer son, dies at 100". Oakland Tribune. 6 May 2004. Archived from the original on 2008-01-06. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  4. ^ http://articles.latimes.com/1987-05-31/news/mn-9235_1_abbott-case
  5. ^ "Burton Abbott Trial". Law Library. Retrieved 19 March 2016. 
  6. ^ "Brief History of the Alameda County District Attorney's Office". Alameda County Government. Archived from the original on April 27, 2006. Retrieved 2007-11-18. 
  7. ^ Adams, Charles Francis. Murder By The Bay: Historic Homicide in and about the City of San Francisco. Quill Driver Books. Retrieved 2007-11-18. 
  8. ^ People v. Abbott, 47 Cal. 2d 362, 303 P.2d 730 (1956)
  9. ^ a b "Race in the Death House". Time Magazine. 25 March 1957. Retrieved 2007-11-18. 
  10. ^ "BELONGINGS OF LOST STEPHANIE DUG UP IN E. BAY CELLAR". The San Francisco Examiner. archived by Investigation Discovery. 1955-07-17. Retrieved 2016-09-14. 

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