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Determined D.A. Harbors No Doubt About Murder

Justice: Victoria Banks had been sterilized, yet she'd said she was pregnant. Did she kill the infant, or did it ever exist?

July 14, 2002|MICHAEL LUO | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

BUTLER, Ala. — Dist. Atty. Bobby Keahey studied the wildly different, ever-changing statements the three mentally retarded murder suspects had made to police. In them, he found a pattern.

At one time or another, all three said they heard a baby cry.

When they weren't denying the baby was born, they all said it was a boy.

And at one time or another, all three mentioned the baby's being wrapped in a blue blanket (although in some statements, the blanket was yellow and in others it was blue and yellow, and in still others it was a towel).

What are the chances of all three suspects mentioning those same three things when they were questioned separately, Keahey asked in a recent interview. "If you could do that, you could pick three numbers on the lottery." (Police records show, however, that two of the suspects were questioned together at least once and that, between interrogations, two of them talked together about the case in their cells.)

True, there were some holes in the case. No body had been found. There was no physical evidence of a murder, or even of a birth. And five years earlier, Victoria Banks had undergone a tubal ligation, making it unlikely she could have conceived the child she and two others were suspected of killing.

But according to Keahey, he had no reservations about the evidence, no doubt that the three suspects were guilty.

He brought capital murder charges against Victoria Banks, her sister Dianne Tucker, and Banks' estranged husband, Medell. (Nearly two years would pass before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, last month, that executing retarded people is unconstitutional.)

Victoria Banks, already serving 15 years on an unrelated charge, was sent to the death row unit of Tutwiler State Prison for Women, standard procedure in Alabama for those charged with crimes punishable by execution. She shared the cellblock with a woman who had shot a policeman.

On Nov. 27, 2000, Victoria Banks returned to Butler for her murder trial at the Choctaw County Courthouse. The three-story brick building sits in the middle of town. A statue of a Confederate soldier stands guard on the courthouse lawn. Across the street is the Dixie Gas Station, which displays the Rebel flag.

A few years earlier, some townsfolk proposed adding another monument to the courthouse lawn. They wanted to honor a civil rights protester who had been run down by a white driver right in front of the courthouse.

The board of county commissioners rejected the idea in a 3-2 vote, all three white members voting no. One of them said he feared the monument might stir racial tensions.

Now it was the Banks murder case that was making folks uneasy.

"You have a white sheriff, a white D.A., a white judge," said Tommy Campbell, editor and lone reporter at the Choctaw Advocate. "The defendants, they're all black, mentally retarded, poor, indigent."

Victoria Banks entered the courtroom in clothes borrowed from her lawyer's wife. She followed her attorneys' directions, looking at the jurors and keeping her hands folded in her lap.

She stood trial alone, with Medell Banks and Dianne Tucker scheduled to be tried later.

Among the witnesses for the prosecution were the two evangelists who had visited Victoria Banks in jail. The young women were positive she had been pregnant. They came across as smart, honest and convincing.

Would such testimony convince jurors that Victoria Banks had become pregnant despite her tubal ligation--that she was the one woman in 100 whose tubes grow back together after the procedure?

A simple medical test could show for sure whether her tubes were still blocked. If they were, her lawyers thought, she would almost certainly be acquitted. But what if the test showed the tubes had reopened? That might be enough to send her to the electric chair.

Weighing the risks and benefits of learning the truth, defense lawyers decided it was too big a risk to take.

The fourth day of the trial was devoted to tape recordings of Victoria Banks' conflicting denials and confessions, made during the weeks she was questioned without the advice of a lawyer. With the jury absent, Circuit Court Judge Harold Crow spent several hours listening to the scratchy audio and then to lawyers debating whether they should be admitted into evidence.

The issue was undecided as court adjourned for the evening. Keahey, the prosecutor, approached Spencer Walker, a defense lawyer, in the hallway and offered a deal:

Banks could plead guilty to manslaughter.

She would be sentenced to 15 years, to be served concurrently with her conviction for helping her abusive boyfriend rape her daughter. That meant she wouldn't have to serve a single additional day in prison.

But, as a condition of the plea agreement, she would have to declare that she had given birth and that her sister and estranged husband had been present.

Walker weighed the odds. Accepting the plea would remove the risk that Victoria Banks might be sentenced to life in prison, or even executed.

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