Two doctors say it was all but impossible for Victoria Bell Banks to have been pregnant in 1999, years after sterilization surgery. But a third physician reported hearing a fetal heartbeat, and Banks herself talked of being pregnant--though she later denied it.
Although no newborn was seen and no body found, Banks and two others--all poor blacks described by a defense lawyer as mentally retarded--are serving 15-year terms in state prison for killing a baby and burying the infant in the piney woods of rural Alabama.
Faced with murder charges that carried a possible death sentence, all three pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a case that has stirred pent-up emotions, including racial concerns of civil rights groups.
"The overall feeling is that there's a miscarriage of justice in this case," said the Rev. Gregory Mullen, who travels from Birmingham to serve as pastor of a Baptist church in Butler.
Dr. Roshdy Habib, the first physician to check Banks, found no sign of pregnancy, noting that she had had surgery on her Fallopian tubes to prevent it.
"That makes it almost impossible to become pregnant," said Habib, who examined Banks at the Choctaw County Jail. "The evidence is very clear that she was not pregnant." If she were, he said in a recent interview, it could have been "by the Holy Spirit."
Dr. Michael P. Steinkampf, director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Fertility at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, said after an examination of Banks last year "it was impossible" that she was pregnant.
But Sheriff Donald Lolley said he felt certain she was. He saw her two or three times a week and noted, "I can usually tell by looking at a lady if she appears to be pregnant or not."
There was an even more compelling reason to think a baby was on the way--Banks said so herself. A boyfriend, George Bonner, also testified that she grew large in pregnancy. Authorities allege the baby would have been delivered in June 1999.
In January 1999, one month after Habib's examination of Banks, Dr. Katherine Hensleigh reported hearing a fetal heartbeat, but conducted no in-depth medical examination at the jail clinic, according to court records.
Not long afterward, Sheriff Lolley saw Banks in town, no longer looking pregnant, and he said she told him the baby had been delivered stillborn.
But what had happened to the infant? A criminal probe into the missing newborn eventually brought capital murder charges against Banks, her estranged husband, Medell Banks Jr., and her sister, Dianne Bell Tucker.
Authorities accused Tucker and Medell Banks of taking part in the death of the newborn, with Medell Banks allegedly burying it in a hole two feet deep.
Defense lawyers say the three were incapable of understanding their legal rights and, facing a possible death sentence, were manipulated into pleas.
Medell Banks, 30, completed 12 years in special education, but never passed the graduation exam. Victoria Banks, 33, also was in special education, testing as trainable mentally retarded at age 12. Victoria Banks has an IQ of 40, and her husband about 57, defense attorney Joseph W. Hutchinson III says.
"What choice did they have?" Hutchinson says of the pleas.
When Medell Banks agreed to plead guilty, he says, he was under the impression that he would receive the minimum sentence in a 2-to-20-year range discussed by his lawyers and the prosecutors. The judge imposed a 15-year term.
His attorneys are seeking a new trial; Medell Banks had said in court that he was innocent.
"I wasn't there. I don't know nothing about nothing," he told Choctaw County Circuit Judge J. Lee McPhearson.
The judge accepted the guilty pleas, though he expressed doubt about Victoria Banks' credibility.
In testimony, he noted, she "denied ever having the baby. She has apparently told investigators and numerous other people that she was, in fact, pregnant during the spring of 1999, but has likewise made numerous statements, after the investigation of this matter occurred that she was not pregnant."
Dist. Atty. Robert D. Keahey disputes that the three are retarded.
"There's no truth to that at all," the district attorney said. "The court won't allow them to plead guilty to something if they're mentally retarded."
Prosecutors suggested Banks' Fallopian tube surgery had reversed itself, permitting pregnancy. Tubes spontaneously reattach in about 1% of cases, medical experts say.
But Steinkampf, brought in after the pleas were made, ruled that out. Using a test in which dye is forced into the tubes and scanned, he reported results that were 100% consistent with tubes that were severed and permanently closed.
Keahey, the district attorney, said all three defendants "gave a statement there was a child born. Every one gave a statement they disposed of it." The body allegedly was buried near the abandoned mobile home where the birth occurred. Neither a body nor any trace of the birth was found, attorneys said. The case proceeded on witness statements.
Troubling prosecution evidence came from Bonner, the boyfriend who claimed to be the baby's father, who said Banks told him she was going to "get rid of the damn baby" because she heard that Bonner was with another girlfriend in Mississippi.
Bonner is serving a 30-year sentence for second-degree rape of a 12-year-old, a case in which Victoria Banks was also convicted. She was in the county jail on that charge the first time she told Habib that she was pregnant.
Mullen, the pastor at the Banks family's church, called the prosecution baffling.
"I personally don't understand how three mentally retarded people could cover up," Mullen said. "None of them had any experience in delivering a child. Then we're to think they were smart enough to get rid of the evidence?"
Tommy Campbell, editor of the weekly Choctaw Advocate, said blacks in the area have raised questions of fairness, and the newspaper has gotten calls from the "community in general--not judgmental-type calls. People just really are asking, 'What's going on here?' "