Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carl Panzram: Too Evil to Live, Part II

The Trial

Boston Globe headline on October 19, 1928. (Mark Gado)
Boston Globe headline on Octo-
ber 19, 1928. (Mark Gado)

By the time his trial began, Panzram was well known in law enforcement circles, and rumors of his lust for raping and killing children were widespread. His story had already appeared in dozens of newspapers, including the Topeka Times, The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In March 1929, he wrote a letter to the deputy warden: "I understand there are a number of charges against me. Several for murder and one for being an escaped convict from Oregon. Will you please let me know how many warrants there are against me, where they are from and what charges?" On April 16, 1930, the Chicago Evening American reported: "Despite the fact he boasted of killing twenty-three persons that he would like to kill thousands and then commit suicide Panzram is sane to the extent that he knows right from wrong." Authorities in Salem, Philadelphia and New Haven were actively preparing criminal cases against Panzram while he remained in solitary at Leavenworth.

Throughout this period, Panzram kept up his correspondence with Lesser and wrote a series of letters about his life in Leavenworth. He complained often about the lack of reading material but praised the quality of food. He said that being in prison made him feel more "human" and less like the animal he thought he was. When he arrived at Leavenworth, he figured he would be beaten and abused anyway so he decided that he wouldn't be beaten for nothing. He immediately tried to escape and was caught. He became hostile and uncooperative to the guards. However, this time, there were no beatings. "No one lays a hand on me. No one abuses me in any way...I have been trying to figure it out and I have come to the conclusion that, if in the beginning I had been treated as I am now, then there wouldn't have been quite so many people...that have been robbed, raped and killed," he wrote.

When the trial began on April 14, 1930, for Warnke's murder, Panzram was defiant and uncooperative. He limped into the courtroom at 9:30 a.m. His awkward gait was the life-long reminder of his "medical treatment" years before in the dungeons of Dannemora.

"Have you an attorney?" asked Judge Hopkins on the morning of opening testimony.

"No, and I don't want one!" answered Panzram. Hopkins went on to advise the defendant that he had a constitutional right to representation and should use the services of an attorney, who would be appointed to him for free. Panzram replied by cursing the judge loudly. When asked for a plea, he stood and sneered at the court.

"I plead not guilty! Now you go ahead and prove me guilty, understand?" he said. The prosecutor called a parade of witnesses . Appearing were Warden T.B. White, who also brought the murder weapon to court, five Leavenworth guards and 10 prisoners. Several prisoners testified they saw Panzram smash the skull of his helpless victim with an iron bar repeatedly while Warnke lay unconscious on the prison floor. Throughout the testimony, Panzram sat in his chair smiling at the witnesses. The jury took just 45 minutes to arrive at a verdict. To the surprise of no one, Panzram was found guilty of murder with no recommendation for mercy. Hopkins remanded him back to Leavenworth until "the fifth day of September, nineteen thirty, when between the hours of six to nine o'clock in the morning you shall be taken to some suitable place within the confines of the penitentiary and hanged by the neck until dead." Panzram seemed relieved, almost happy. A huge grin came across his face as he slowly rose up from his chair.

"I certainly want to thank you, judge, just let me get my fingers around your neck for 60 seconds and you'll never sit on another bench as judge!" he said to a shocked audience. Panzram stood erect, his shirt unbuttoned from the collar down, partially exposing the massive tattoo on his broad chest, his powerful arms strained against the iron handcuffs as his face contorted into a twisted sneer. U. S. Marshals surrounded Panzram, while he cursed the jury, and dragged him out of the courtroom. When the jury filed out of the box, they could hear his maniacal laughter reverberating off the sterile walls.

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