An Unforgettable Crime Murder: Trials like O. J. Simpson's never fail to stir memories in retired judge Anselm Sodaro of Baltimore's sensational Grammer case from the 1950s.

November 23, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

It was the most famous case of his career and perhaps the most sensational homicide of the last 50 years in Baltimore.

More than four decades later, the murder of Dorothy May Grammer is never far from Anselm Sodaro's thoughts. At 86, the retired Baltimore judge and prosecutor lives comfortably and quietly with his second wife Mildred in a Towson high-rise.

He could easily stroll over to the Baltimore County Courthouse where the Grammer case began for him after church on a August Sunday in 1952. But he rarely does. He has been, after all, retired from active legal life 17 years now.

Then something like the O. J. Simpson trial comes along with a drumbeat of familiar sensation and Judge Sodaro once again feels the irony and the sorrow, the banality and the tragedy of the case he prosecuted 44 years ago.

"When you read in the newspapers, or see on television," Judge Sodaro says, in his measured way, "a case comparable in some fashion, or parallel in some way, like the Simpson case, the Grammer case comes back to me."

Judge Sodaro was chief assistant state's attorney in Baltimore City, a veteran prosecutor, when G. Edward Grammer was charged with the murder of his wife. He heard Edward Grammer's confession, organized and tried the case and won the courtroom victory.

Judge Herman Moser, sitting alone without jury, sentenced Grammer to death. Grammer died June 11, 1954, in one of Maryland's most miserably botched hangings. His wretched death took 20 minutes of strangulation and led directly to the introduction of the gas chamber in Maryland.

"This was a tragic case. This is not a case for one to boast about," says Judge Sodaro, who was not at the execution. "It is a very sad case."

The Grammer case began just after midnight on Aug. 20, 1952, when a Chrysler town car loomed out of the dark on Taylor avenue, careening downhill toward Belair road.

The Chrysler zigged and zagged on and off the street, narrowly missed a Baltimore County police cruiser, bounced into a bank, went airborne briefly, whacked a tree and flipped over on its right side.

Crumpled and bloody in the front seat was Dorothy May Grammer, 33 years old, the wife of a metals company executive and the mother of three little girls. The motor raced as if someone still had their foot on the accelerator.

The policemen felt for a pulse and found none. They turned off the ignition. They called an ambulance. Mrs. Grammer was dead arrival at St. Joseph's Hospital. She had a fractured skull.

Her death would become one of the most celebrated Baltimore murder cases of the century: an attempt at a perfect crime that went awry almost from the start.

'Parallel scenarios'

The Grammer case captured the imagination of the city and generated reams of newspaper copy, unfolding like a combination of Greek tragedy and daytime soap opera.

The courtroom was packed when Grammer went on trial. Long lines for seats formed every day before the courthouse opened.

And in the end a crowd of 700 gathered outside the penitentiary the night he was hanged.

Judge Sodaro remains lively, wise, witty and judicial as he recites the history of the case, sometimes rapping on the table to make a point. His demeanor is downright courtly. He unfailingly refers to the hanged murderer as Mister Grammer.

"There are no two cases alike," Judge Sodaro says, reflecting on the similarities with the Simpson case. "But many notorious and sensational cases all have parallel scenarios.

"Mr. Grammer killed his wife," he says. "Simpson was charged with killing his wife, for different motives. Both were cases involving children."

Circumstantial evidence was important in both trials. The stone jammed under the accelerator of Dorothy Grammer's Chrysler became as famous in Baltimore as the bloody glove in the first Simpson trial.

The brilliant and innovative Dr. Russell S. Fisher was making the Maryland's medical examiner's office a model of forensic pathology, a proponent of what might be called the investigative autopsy. His intellectual heirs provided DNA evidence in the Simpson trial.

Dr. Fisher recognized immediately that Dorothy Grammer's head injuries were inflicted during a deadly beating, not a result of the crash. "Someone killed that woman," Dr. Fisher said, "then cleverly tried to conceal it."

Judge Sodaro remembers particularly Dr. Fisher's sardonic pronouncement: "Blood doesn't flow uphill." The Chrysler had rolled over on the passenger side. Most of Mrs. Grammer's blood was on the driver's side.

"This is not an accident," the medical examiner said. The judge recalls each of Dr. Fisher's words with a rap on the table, as if he had a gavel in his hand.

Another woman

Dorothy May Grammer was by all accounts a devoted wife and mother. She and her husband had been high school sweethearts in Baltimore. They'd been married 13 years. Ed Grammer's job took him to New York City. They lived in an apartment in the Bronx.

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