A Case for Wrongful Death

By on Oct 30, 2020 in Fiction

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1940s woman walking down street

On cross examination, Vass began, “Mr. Wheeler, you know that the only way you can determine whether a patient has gonorrhea is by examination of cells under a microscope, don’t you?”

“That is one way, but I can tell it when I see it.”

“How is that?”

“From the pus.”

“How does the pus of gonorrhea differ from the pus of other infections?”

“Yellow and thick.”

“But isn’t the pus from other infections also yellow and thick?”


“Then you can’t tell them apart, can you?

“With a microscope you can.”

“But you didn’t do that, did you?”


“But you charged her $50 for treating her for a disease you didn’t know she had?”

“I knew she had something.”

“Thank you. That’s all I have.

Dr. Wheeler was the only witness for the defense.

Horace Vass once again took command of the courtroom, calling a Dr. Jennings, a specialist in venereal diseases as an expert witness. His thick frame and silver hair pronounced him a man of vast self-importance with little time to waste. He testified that diagnosing gonorrhea without examining a sample of pus under the microscope was “highly unorthodox.”

“Once gonorrhea has been diagnosed, how is it usually treated?”

“Doctors routinely prescribe a colloidal silver product called Protargol.”

“Is that product easily available?”

“It is. Bayer manufactures it.”

“Dr. Jennings, would you treat gonorrhea by inserting a drainage tube into the abdomen?”


“Have you ever heard of that method of treating gonorrhea?”

“No sir.”

“Is the insertion of a tube, such as a catheter or a drainage kind of tube, into the womb one technique for performing an abortion?”

“That is the method commonly used by abortionists.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

On cross-examination, Johnny Ingram established that Dr. Jennings had not seen or examined Connie Reynolds at any time.

“Now, if a doctor discovers a large amount of pus in a patient’s vagina, would it be reasonable for him to insert a tube to promote drainage of the pus?”

“Under certain sanitary conditions, that would be reasonable.”

“Dr. Jennings, isn’t it true that ordinarily it takes 24 to 36 hours for peritonitis, which was the cause of Miss Reynold’s death, to take effect?”

“That is the usual case.”

“But in this case, Miss Reynolds died of peritonitis within 16 hours of Dr. Wheeler’s treatment, isn’t that true?”

“I believe that is the evidence.”

“Therefore, isn’t there a good chance that the infection was already in her body, as described by Dr. Wheeler, when he examined her?”

“That is a possibility. But the diagnosis of gonorrhea is not.”

“Thank you. That is all.”

The lawyers droned on for another hour or so, but added no new information.

In his closing statement, Horace Vass once again looked into the eyes of each juror. “Connie Reynolds sought out the defendant here,” Vass pointed to Dr. Wheeler, “expressly to get an abortion. This unskilled, negligent man inserted a tube into her uterus for that purpose and no other. And,” he paused for the effect, “this poor excuse for a doctor punched [Vass pounded his fist on the wooden railing surrounding the jury] a hole in the young woman’s uterus. That punch [he pounded again] through the wall of her uterus created an infection that caused her death. You have no choice, gentlemen. You must find for the plaintiff, the father of this unfortunate woman.”

Johnny Ingram was brief. “This is a sad story, but my client is not the villain here. Someone gave this poor woman a venereal disease, which caused her to become infected and ended her life. Dr. Wheeler was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he was only trying to heal this young woman. He did not perform an abortion; he did not end her life.”

“Liar!” George yelled out.

“Remove that man,” Judge Aiken ordered.

But George had already fled the courtroom.

After the jury filed out, Vass gathered the family around him, Walton, Lois, Sylvia.

“It’ll take ‘em a while,” he said. “It always does. You should go home, eat something, get some sleep if you can. Try not to think about it. I’ll call the house if it looks like we’re getting a decision.”

“What’s your guess?” Walton asked.

Vass flashed a grin and a thumbs up.


No one wanted to be alone. The family gathered around the kitchen table at Walton’s house, staring, slightly disgusted, at the tuna fish casserole a neighbor had brought over.

“It was horrible, horrible,” Lois said, “hearing all those lies.”

“Nobody’s going to believe it,“ Walton said.

“Whatever happens, I’m going to make their lives miserable,” George said.

 “What do you have in mind?” Walton’s voice was calm, like he was asking out of a disinterested curiosity.

“I want to kill them, both of them; I want to take my hunting rifle and shoot them.”

“No!” Lois cried out.

He aimed his finger at the casserole. “Bang.”

“It wouldn’t help,” Walton said. “You could shoot both of them. And it wouldn’t help. I thought this trial would help, but even if we win, even if that bastard and his lawyer are never able to work again, it won’t help.”

They both stared at him.

“I’m sorry I put us through this,” he said.


At 5 o’clock that evening, they were summoned to the courthouse.

“I didn’t expect it so soon,” Walton said, as he and Lois joined Vass in the crowded courtroom.

The lawyer’s broad forehead was creased into a frown. “It’s a good sign,” he said. But for the first time, his voice betrayed some doubt.

Johnny Ingram, at the defendant’s table, had his arm around his client, who sat huddled next to him.

The jury took their seats, looking straight ahead with solemn faces.

“Would the Foreman please rise?”

The tall, thin man who had identified himself as a Methodist minister when the jury was first questioned stood.

Horace Vass took a deep breath.

Walton whispered, “Didn’t you say that it would be better for us if the Foreman were the pediatrician?”

“Don’t worry,” Vass whispered back.

“Have you reached a decision?” Judge Aiken asked.

“We have.”

Judge Aiken read the decision to himself with no reaction. Then he began to read aloud.

“We the jury find the plaintiff has failed to prove that the defendant performed an abortion on Connie Reynolds. Therefore, he is not liable for her death.”

The room came alive. Everybody was talking, shouting.

“Quiet!” Judge Aiken slammed down his gavel.

It was over.

“Let’s get out of here,” Lois whispered to George.

But he just sat there, his mouth half open, his eyes staring at nothing.

“Come on,” she pleaded.

But when he didn’t move, Lois made herself get up and follow the excited crowd to the courtroom doors.

“What a shame,” she heard someone say.

Lois felt a strong urge to go up to this woman, whoever she was, and thank her. She needed to hear someone say that the jury was wrong, their decision shameful.

But then a second voice. “Imagine! That girl was just seventeen and already in trouble.”

Already in trouble?

“And that father of hers trying to blame the doctor!”

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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.