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A Mono Indian’s fight for life, part I

Madera County Historical Society

Mason Bailey, shown here in 1960, worked for 10 years to keep Rayna T. Carmen out of the Gas Chamber.


It was late Saturday afternoon, April 22, 1950, when Rayna Tom Carmen had a casual encounter with three people on the streets of North Fork. The results of that chance meeting put him on San Quentin’s Death Row and a 16-year old boy in his grave. It also opened up a fierce fight over how much jurisdiction the State of California had over the Mono Indians of Madera County.

Rayna, who was a 39-year-old World War II veteran had been a life-long acquaintance of Mrs. Ella McSwain, her nephew Alvin McSwain, and her cousin Josephine Davis, the three people he had met in North Fork. Therefore, it was not unusual that Ella would ask Carmen to drive the trio to her home a few miles from North Fork.

After spending a short time at the McSwain home the women decided they wanted to go to a dance at Yosemite Forks, so they asked Carmen to take them. When they got to the dance hall, they were joined by Wilbur McSwain, Alvin’s brother.

Apparently everything went well at the dance, for they stayed there until 2 in the morning. When the music ended, everybody opted for a short trip to Kilroy’s Stand where soft drinks and sandwiches were sold. That’s where things turned sour.

According to the court records, Rayna Carmen and Josephine Davis began to argue over the relative military prowess of the U.S. Army vs. the U.S. Marines. Rayna, of course, took the side of the Army, and for some reason Davis choose to champion the Marines. Apparently the debate got heated, and Carmen slapped Davis. With that Wilbur and Alvin McSwain and some others came to the rescue. They pushed Carmen to the ground and may have roughed him up a bit.

When they allowed Carmen to get up, he threatened that he was going home (about 35 miles away) to get a gun and “kill the whole bunch.”

When Carmen left, Wilbur and Alvin were joined by Marion Donnell and Theodore Davis. They headed for the McSwain place while Ella and Josephine went their own way. When the four young men got to the McSwain home, they found Rayna Carmen setting on the steps with a loaded rifle. As they pulled up and stopped, Rayna confronted them. Wilbur McSwain was in the driver’s seat, and Donnell was beside him. In the rear seat sat Alvin McSwain and Davis.

Carmen approached the car on its left side as Wilbur stepped out, pleading for his life. He shot McSwain in the head. He then walked to the back of the car and shot through the window, striking Alvin McSwain in the shoulder and arm three times.

Somehow, Alvin was able to jump out of the car and tackle Carmen. He was quickly joined by Davis and Donnell. They disarmed the shooter and held him until Deputy George Kramer arrived and placed him under arrest. They took Wilbur to Dearborn Hospital where he died.

Rayna Carmen was charged with the murder of Wilbur McSwain and assault with intent to commit the murder of Alvin McSwain.

Carmen’s trial began on June 20, 1950, in the Madera Superior Court of Judge Stanley Murray. District Attorney John D. Boyle prosecuted the case, and attorney Mason Bailey was assigned by the court to represent Carmen. Boyle announced his intention to seek the death penalty.

It took the jury one hour and 45 minutes on Friday, the fourth day of the trial, to find Carmen guilty on both counts. Since there was no penalty recommendation from the jury, the death sentence was mandatory unless Carmen was found to be insane in the sanity trial, which was scheduled the following Monday.

It seemed to all observers that the case was open and shut. District Attorney Boyle told the jury that Carmen had plenty of time to cool off as he drove the 13 miles to the McSwain home on Malum Ridge. He knew precisely what he was doing.

On the other hand, the court got its first glimpse of the tenacity of Carmen’s defense attorney — the man who would spend ten years of his life trying to get his client off of Death Row.

Bailey had argued that Carmen was “under a spell” at the time he shot and killed Wilbur McSwain. The attorney said his client was not responsible for his actions because of his anger during the argument, reminding the jurors that Carmen was a veteran of the U.S. Army during World War II.

In the sanity trial, three physicians from the Stockton State Hospital declared that Carmen was sane, and it took the jury half an hour to make it official.

Judge Murray sentenced Carmen to die in the San Quentin gas chamber, and as he was being taken back to the Madera County Jail, the condemned man muttered, “I wonder if they will give me ethyl gas or mustard gas.”

It would take him years to find out.

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To be continued…

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