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A Trying Time Finding Truth in Small-Town Murder Case

Courts: Three retarded defendants are accused of killing an infant. But the baby's very existence is in doubt.

July 07, 2002|MICHAEL LUO | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

First in a weekly series

BUTLER, Ala.--Victoria Banks' court-appointed lawyers explained the prosecution's offer to her as best as they could, using the simplest language. She sat quietly as they laid out her options across a mahogany law library table.

There are two choices, the lawyers said. We can take the case to the jury, or we can accept a plea bargain.

There's a good chance we can win, the lawyers said. The police never found a body. We can argue that you, your sister and your estranged husband were confused by police questioning--that the confessions were contradictory and coerced.

But something could go wrong, they continued. You might be sent to prison for the rest of your life. Or even die in the electric chair.

As they spoke, the lawyers couldn't be sure how much the mentally retarded woman understood.

*

A trial is all or nothing. The risk is enormous for both sides.

A plea bargain removes risk, replacing it with a compromise that neither side may like but that both can accept.

We like to think that justice is about finding the truth, but when defense lawyers and prosecutors weigh whether to risk everything or play it safe, something essential can be lost.

Did Victoria Banks really kill her baby?

Did the baby ever exist? When defendants -- in this case, three--are retarded, the truth can be particularly hard to find.

*

Banks was in the Choctaw County Jail, awaiting trial on another charge, when she started telling people she was pregnant.

She'd been arrested in October 1998, after teachers found bruises on her 11-year-old daughter. The girl had been raped by her mother's new boyfriend, George Bonner. The way police figured it, he told Banks she wasn't satisfying him and she let him have her child.

At 27 years old, the poor, black mother seemed like a child herself--quiet, shy, easily manipulated, prone to dissolving into giggles. She had an IQ of 40, had dropped out of special education in the ninth grade to have the first of her six children, was cowed by an abusive boyfriend.

Experts in retardation and criminal justice disagree about whether people such as Banks, who have flawed judgment and poor impulse control, should be held fully culpable for crimes they may commit. Experts also ask whether reasoning difficulties put retarded defendants at an unfair disadvantage in dealing with police.

The debate reached a milestone last month when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death sentence for retarded people. Executing them, the court decided, neither appropriately punishes the criminal nor serves as a deterrent.

In early February 1999, after telling guards she'd been missing her period, Banks was taken to Dr. Roshdy Habib, 74, the jail doctor for two decades. Banks told Habib she was six months' pregnant.

Habib wanted to do a pelvic exam, but Banks refused. The doctor examined her abdomen but saw no swelling. When he asked about a scar on her belly, Banks said she'd had her tubes tied in 1995.

Fallopian tubes can spontaneously reattach after a tubal ligation, but Habib knew it happens rarely--in just one out of 100 cases. He wrote his conclusion in his records: Banks was faking pregnancy to try to get out of jail.

But Banks kept telling people she was pregnant, and after a while, some inmates thought the short, stocky woman was starting to look it. "She was showing," said Jonathan Rodgers, who was serving time for burglary.

A pair of church evangelists, who held weekly services at the jail, saw Banks' body changing too. They prayed with her for the health of the baby.

Around that time, Habib retired, and Dr. Katherine Hensleigh took over Banks' care. Where Habib saw fakery, Hensleigh saw pregnancy.

She measured Banks' abdomen in February and again in March, and found it consistent with a pregnancy of five or six months. She attached a heart monitor to Banks' abdomen and picked up a rhythmic sound distinct from the mother's heartbeat.

"It wasn't difficult to hear," she said later, adding that nurses and Banks heard the heartbeat too.

Sheriff Donald Lolley did not regard this as good news. Lolley, who declined to be interviewed for this story but talked to the AP earlier about the case, thought his jail was no place for a pregnant woman. Besides, those around him say, he didn't want Choctaw County footing the obstetrics bill.

Lolley saw to it that Banks' bond was lowered so her mother could bail her out.

On May 14, 1999, Banks walked out of jail and back into Butler, a town with one diner, one motel and a Texaco gas station that serves catfish and chicken-fried steak--all nestled in the woods of western Alabama. It's home to 1,952 people, roughly split between black and white, with both races holding elected offices. The country club recently admitted its first black members.

Banks returned to her job at the chicken plant, more than an hour's bus ride across the Mississippi state line. That's where working-class people in Butler go if they can't get a job near home at the Georgia Pacific paper mill.

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