A Case for Wrongful Death

By on Oct 30, 2020 in Fiction

Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 Page 5 Page 6 Page 7 Page 8 Page 9

1940s woman walking down street

The trial took place nine months later in the Madison County Superior Court in Stanton. It was March 1941, and warm enough already for the courthouse to be stuffy. Judge Aiken presided over the twelve jurors, all men, all churchgoers, but then everyone in that part of Madison County attended services.

Walton had hired Horace Vass, a prominent member of the Baptist Tabernacle, to represent the family. Which was a good thing, because juries loved his country lawyer style. No matter how hard Mrs. Vass tried to keep her outsized husband looking fresh, his shirttails were forever slipping out of his trousers and his collar was always damp. Old Vass speaks the truth, people said.

On the day Mr. Vass made his opening statement, the courthouse was packed. Most of Stanton’s doctors had come out, along with members of the Baptist Tabernacle, the Reynolds family, and those too curious to stay home or go to work. Cardboard fans from Swicegood Funeral Home fluttered in front of sweaty, expectant faces. George slipped into a seat toward the back of the courtroom and kept his eyes focused on the floor.

Walton Reynolds sat, with shoulders squared, to Mr. Vass’s right. At the other counsel table, Dr. Wheeler squirmed in his seat alongside his lawyer, Johnny Ingram, fresh out of law school and wearing a blue suit too big at the shoulders.

Judge Aiken, a lean, pointy-faced man who rarely smiled, took the bench and called the case. After dispensing with the usual logistical matters, he instructed the jury: “The questions before you, gentlemen, are (1) whether the defendant, Dr. Wheeler, did or did not perform or attempt to perform an abortion on Connie Reynolds, and (2) if so, whether the abortion caused her death.“

Horace Vass rose slowly and ambled over to face the jury. He just stood there for a minute or two without saying anything, but looked each man in the eye as if to say he could count on that particular juror to see things his way. He then introduced the bereaved father.

“This man is grieving,” he said in a soft voice, almost a whisper, “because the beautiful young woman he raised from a child and loved more than anyone in the whole world is not here in this courthouse. Connie Reynolds cannot be here because . . .” he paused, pointed to Dr. Wheeler, and spoke each word precisely, “that man you see right there, cowering beside his lawyer,” he paused again, “killed her.”

Wheeler shot a glance at his lawyer as if he expected him to say something, but Johnny Ingram merely patted him on the shoulder.

“That’s right, gentlemen,” Vass continued. “Dr. Wheeler intentionally took an illegal action that killed this young woman. Now the evidence will show that Connie Reynolds wished to terminate her pregnancy out of a sense of shame. You are not to consider the morality of her decision.”

In the back of the courtroom, George took a deep breath and stared at his shoelaces.

“The young woman,” Vass continued, “is in the hands of the Lord, who judges us all. But if we look into our hearts, we can understand and sympathize with her. She was very young, very much in love, and only human.”

He paused to let that sink in.

“You can, however, and you must judge the man sitting here who calls himself Doctor [Vass strung out the word] Wheeler. But this man doesn’t heal the sick, he doesn’t take out our appendices or hold our hands when we’re dying. No, this man makes his living performing illegal abortions. That’s all he does, and in this case, he performed his gruesome task so poorly that he mutilated a young woman’s body and ended her life.”

All eyes focused on the rotund little man, who ducked his head.

Vass, with the smile of the righteous on his broad features, lumbered back to his seat, wiped his face with a rumpled handkerchief, and wrapped his arm around Walton.

Johnny Ingram then stood to face the jury.

“My client, Dr. Lonnie Wheeler, is a respected member of the medical community of this town,” he began. “He is being maligned by opposing counsel for allegedly causing the death of plaintiff’s daughter. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Gentlemen, this promiscuous young woman was in fact pregnant. She was an immoral woman, who . . .”

Vass jumped to his feet. “Objection! Arguing the case.”

“Sustained. You must stick to facts, not make an argument, in your opening statement, Mr. Ingram,” the judge said.

“But he argued in his opening statement,” Ingram answered.

“Then you should have objected,” the judge said.

Horace Vass smiled.

Ingram cleared his throat and began anew. “The plaintiff’s daughter was already seriously ill when she came to Dr. Wheeler for help. She had contracted a venereal disease . . .”

Walton Reynolds jumped up, his face white.

“Objection!” snapped Vass, pulling Walton back into his seat. “Argument.”


“Don’t let it get to you,” Vass whispered to Walton. “He’s desperate, that’s all.”

From that point on, every time Ingram touched on the reason Connie Reynolds sought Dr. Wheeler’s help, Vass jumped to his feet and the judge sustained his objections.

The jury members shifted in their seats and looked down as if they were embarrassed for the young lawyer. But George, at the back of the courtroom, was glaring at him.

Ingram finally wound up his fractured opening statement. “Gentlemen, when you have weighed the evidence, you will conclude that Dr. Wheeler was not performing an abortion on this young woman, but he was heroically treating her for an illness she had been suffering for some time.”

Ingram smiled weakly at his client when he returned to the counsel table. Dr. Wheeler did not return the smile.

During the recess, George rushed to the counsel table.

“He’s lying,” he hissed. “Why didn’t the judge stop him?”

“Don’t worry,” Vass assured him. “Nobody’s going to believe it. He doesn’t have a case. It’s pathetic.”

“You better be right,” George snapped.

Vass put his hand on George’s arm. “Look, I’ve got it covered. I knew this line of attack was coming, and we’ve got the perfect witness. An expert. You’ll see.”

George muttered under his breath as he retreated to the back of the room.

Judge Aiken nodded to Vass. “Call your first witness.”

Vass grinned as he whispered to Walton, “Here we go.”

Dr. Thornton testified that he was the Reynolds’ family physician and was called to the Reynolds’ house early on the morning of July 7, 1940.

“When I arrived, I found the patient, Connie Reynolds, complaining of pain and running a high fever. Her abdomen was very distended and extremely tender to the touch. I immediately called an ambulance. At the hospital she began bleeding from her vagina, and so we rushed her to the operating room where she expelled part of a fetus, about two and a half months old, and a macerated afterbirth, which looked like someone had used an instrument to try and cut it out. It didn’t come out whole and firm liked an afterbirth usually does. It was all broken up, as if you would take a rake or something and rake across a piece of soft tissue and tear it to pieces.”

Vass paused to let that testimony sink in with the jury.

“Oh, my God,” someone hissed into the silence.

The judge banged his gavel. “One more outburst from this courtroom and I will empty it of all onlookers.”

 “Now you testified that the fetus was already dead. Did you come to any conclusion as to what caused that death?”

“The sharp object severed the placenta from the mother, causing the death of the fetus.”

“Did you operate on Miss Reynolds?” Vass asked.

“I did. I opened up the abdomen with a small incision and did a complete exploration of the pelvis area.”

“What did you find?”

“I found a hole punctured through the posterior wall of the uterus, large enough to insert a finger.”

Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 Page 5 Page 6 Page 7 Page 8 Page 9

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


Nancy Bourne has been making up stories all her life. Eight years ago, she started writing them down and began to publish. Since then, her work has appeared in more than thirty publications nationwide. Her stories have been published in Upstreet, The South Carolina Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Blue Lake Review, and many others. Her short story collection, Spotswood, Virginia, based on Civil Rights in the 1960s and '70s, is scheduled for publication in Summer 2021. For a full list of Ms. Bourne’s publications, please see nancybourne.us. Ms. Bourne writes about her childhood in the South, her life in California, and her many adventures such as rafting the Grand Canyon and traveling to countries such as Iran. “A Case for Wrongful Death” is based upon stories she heard as a child. Ms. Bourne has been an attorney for public schools, a potter with a home studio, and a teacher, most recently teaching writing to prisoners and incarcerated minors.