When Justice Is Mocked
By BOB HERBERT
The jovial voice on the other end of the phone was that of Robert Keahey, the district attorney for the First Judicial Circuit of Alabama, which includes the tiny town of Butler in Choctaw County.
Mr. Keahey is the prosecutor who brought capital murder charges against three retarded individuals for the murder of an infant, despite the fact that he could not show that the infant had ever existed, much less been killed.
If there was anything about the case that bothered him, he didn't let on. He laughed frequently during the conversation, and it was difficult to resist the impression that he found the whole thing amusing.
All three defendants were black and indigent. It turned out that the woman who supposedly gave birth to the baby in 1999, Victoria Banks, had been sterilized in 1995. But Mr. Keahey would not drop the charges. With capital murder indictments looming over them, and the hostility of the local community apparent, all three defendants pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter.
I asked Mr. Keahey how it was first determined that Ms. Banks -- who claimed she was pregnant in order to get released temporarily from jail in an unrelated case -- was really pregnant.
"She came in weighing about 120 and she left weighing about 160," he said. "And the sheriff saw her grow from a thin woman to a fat woman with her belly poking straight out and her belly button turned inside out."
"Was there a pregnancy test done?" I asked.
"No." said Mr. Keahey, adding "There was no need for a blood test or anything like that. You could look at her and tell."
This was interesting, because a doctor who observed Ms. Banks at the time said he did not think she was pregnant. The doctor wanted to do a pelvic examination, but Ms. Banks would not allow it. When a second doctor reported hearing a fetal heart tone, Ms. Banks was released on bond. That was in May 1999. When Ms. Banks was taken back into custody the following August, she did not have a baby and there was no evidence that she had given birth.
At that point, Mr. Keahey's prosecutorial power went into overdrive. Sol Wachtler, a former New York chief judge, once famously said that grand juries would indict a ham sandwich if a prosecutor wanted them to. Mr. Keahey managed to prove that not only can you indict the sandwich, you can convict it, and send it off to prison, too.
After intense and prolonged questioning without the benefit of counsel, Victoria Banks, her estranged husband, Medell, and her sister, Dianne Tucker, were all arrested and charged with murdering a baby that -- based on the available evidence -- was nothing more than a fantasy.
Mr. Keahey said all three defendants confessed to the crime, and that was enough.
I asked if there was any evidence, apart from the defendants' statements, that there ever was a baby. "We have no physical evidence," he said.
After the three defendants pleaded guilty and were incarcerated for manslaughter, lawyers for Medell Banks raised enough money from churches and other charitable sources for an examination of Ms. Banks by a noted fertility expert, Dr. Michael Steinkampf of the University of Alabama School of Medicine. Dr. Steinkampf determined that the bilateral tubal ligation performed in 1995 had been effective, and that in his opinion Ms. Banks could not have become pregnant in 1999.
Based largely on that evidence, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals recently declared that "a manifest injustice" had occurred in this case and threw out Mr. Banks's guilty plea. But he continues to serve his 15-year prison sentence while awaiting further court action.
The jovial tone in Mr. Keahey's voice changed at the mention of Dr. Steinkampf. "He thinks he's God!" said the D.A. "Yeah, that's right. He don't believe any of the good, honest, law-abiding Christian people in Choctaw County when they say the woman was pregnant."
I pressed Mr. Keahey throughout the interview for any evidence he could offer that the child had ever existed. "They hid it from the rest of the world," he said.
When I asked about the possibility of hospital birth records, he burst out laughing. "She didn't go to a hospital," he said. He laughed harder. "If she had gone to a hospital, that would have made it easy."