Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1956: Roommates seek abortions together; one dies

Lois Brown was tried in the Superior Court of Santa Barbara County of second degree murder and abortion in the January 26, 1956 death of Lucy Sanchez.

Statements by Lucy before her death were corroborated by the testimony of her friends. Lucy's sister testified that three or four months before her death, Lucy had told her that she was pregnant and planning an abortion. A man named Ira Gin testified that about two months prior to the abortion, Lucy had told him she was pregnant and planning to go to Tijuana for an abortion. Some time in November or December of 1955, Gin had brought Lois Brown to the cafe where Lucy worked and introduced them, telling Lucy, "This is the lady you want to see." Brown had told Lucy, "I know a lady who can help you." They made an appointment to meet in front of the post office at 6:00 the following day. Brown also gave Lucy her phone number.

Lucy and her roommate, Clara Thornton, were both pregnant. They went to Brown, who said that her name was Vi, on January 18, 1956.

Clara testified that she and Lucy met Brown on the street and got into a car with her. Brown asked "how far along I was and I told her that I was three months along. She said I didn't have anything to worry about. Lois said that Lucy was a bit further ahead of me [six months pregnant] and it was a little more dangerous for her to go through with it, but said she would be all right, if Lucy would be in the care of Vi and present to tie the baby's navel cord and watch her from hemorrhaging."

Then, Clara testified, Lucy got out of the car and went back home, while Brown drove Lucy to her practice. Clara, who had been in good health, paid $100. Brown used a syringe to inject Clara with a solution which looked and smelled like Lifebouy soap. Clara said that Brown told her that she needed money "and she wished she could take us both. She said she was doing it to us for $100 and she usually did it for $200 in Los Angeles." A syringe was entered into evidence, not as the actual syringe used in the abortion, but identified by Clara as similar to the one used by Brown.

Brown then took Clara to the cafe where Lucy worked and "told Lucy that I was going to be all right and told her that she would see her later and see if she could get any money to go through with hers."

Clara and Lucy went home, accompanied by their friend Beatrice Duran. Clara had "kind of a watery discharge," and the next morning "I started getting bad pains and then I started flowing blood, and then I was in terrible pain and then I went to the bathroom and passed a clot or something after quite a while, and the pain was relieved a little bit then." Brown came by at about 11:00. Clara was still cramping, and passed what she took for another clot. Brown examined it and "called Beatrice and Lucy to look at it and told them that it was the afterbirth and that I was going to be all right."

Brown massaged showed Clara's friends how to massage her abdomen, telling them to do it periodically, "so everything that was left in there would come out." Brown then pressured Lucy to come up with the money to have an abortion as well, even suggesting that she ask Ira Gin for a loan. She left, taking Lucy with her. Gin testified that Lucy and Brown had come to his home, and Lucy had asked to borrow money. Gin said he'd refused but had told Brown that she could trust Lucy to pay her because Lucy was honest.

Beatrice Duran testified in corroboration of what Clara had said, adding that Brown told Clara to go to a doctor and tell the doctor she had a cold so she could get a penicillin shot. Brown then drove Beatrice to work.

Evidently Clara dallied about following this advice, not going to Dr. Randall until January 30. He testified that he figured she had been pregnant and had undergone an abortion about ten days earlier. Clara described the abortion to Randall, who found it consistent with what he saw when he examined her.

In the mean time, Brown had evidently come to some agreement with Lucy Sanchez. Brown came to the young women's home on January 26 and left with Lucy at about 3 p.m. Clara had repaid Lucy the $100 she'd lent her, money Lucy evidently was going to use to pay Brown. Lucy had been in good health when she'd left her home.

At about 7:30 that evening, Brown went to the cafe where Clara worked, asking her to come to take Lucy home. Brown also wanted to know if anybody would disturb them at the house. Clara said that Brown told her "they had gotten through about 5 o'clock and that she started flowing pretty heavily at the time and she started getting dizzy, then went out into a coma, and she was moaning pretty bad and she was afraid that somebody in the neighborhood would hear her and that she'd stay over at our house with her overnight and take care of her."

Clara went to Brown's practice with her. Brown's mother was there as well. Lucy was lying on a couch, with her raincoat and some newspapers under her, and covered with a blanket and a bedspread. There was blood on the bedspread, newspapers, raincoat, and on Lucy. Clara also saw Lucy's clothing there. Brown was acting nervous and excited. Clara helped Brown carry Lucy down to the car, and accompanied by Brown's mother they drove Lucy to a hospital. Brown instructed Clara to tell staff there that Lucy had been in this condition at home, and that Clara had called Brown for help.

As Clara sat outside the emergency room with Brown and Brown's mother, Brown told clara "she knew she shouldn't have done it, and took out her wallet, took out $30 and gave it to me and said those $30 were to help me in case Lucy needed anything."

But Lucy was beyond needing any help. A doctor came out and informed the three women that Lucy had been dead on arrival.

Clara said that Brown then told her "that she didn't know what to do whether to tell the truth or deny it." She asked Clara "whether she should run away or stick it out and then she took out her wallet again from her purse and told me, 'Here's the rest of Lucy's money so you can use it for the funeral.'"

Though Clara said that the doctor in the emergency room had told her that Lucy had been dead on arrival, a doctor testified that Lucy had spoke to him before her death and told him she'd gone to "a residence south of the city" for the abortion, but also that Lucy didn't describe the instruments used. Other doctors who had treated Lucy conjectured as to what instruments would have been used.

The doctor who performed the autopsy said that Lucy had bled to death from large blood vessels in the uterus, and that the membranes had been forcibly separated, likely "by some blunt object which produced dilation of the cervix." The uterine membranes were a dark brown color with a granular appearance, which the physician testified could have been caused by the introduction of chemicals.

Brown testified in her trial that she had been introduced to Lucy, who had asked her for help arranging for an abortion. But, she insisted, she had only told Lucy that she would look for somebody to "help her", perhaps to arrange for her to go to Tijuana. Brown said that she had actually gone to Tijuana to research abortion options for Lucy. Brown also testified that it had been Lucy who had quoted $100 as the amount she could budget for an abortion. Brown also said that she'd told Lucy that she herself would not be able to accompany her to Tijuana.

Brown's attorney tried to use quotes from medical textbooks to counter the autopsy surgeon's testimony as to whether or not Lucy's injuries were indeed consistent with an induced abortion.

The defense also asked that instead of a reporter's notes of her statement being read, a recording be played that would show the jury that she had been questioned improperly. Brown complained that the Deputy District Attorney "would ask me three or four questions at a time, sort of shouting and yelling at me without letting me answer at least one of them before he got all the other ones in." When the judge ruled against this, the defense argued that this would cause the jury to believe there had been no impropriety in questioning. But when in rebuttal the prosecutors later wanted to enter the recording as evidence, the defense had countered that this would subject the jury to the same evidence twice and thus give it excessive weight. Thus, in the appeal, Brown's defense argued that the jury had been unduly prejudiced against the defendant both because the recording they'd wanted played hadn't been played, and because the prosecution, in offering to play it, had then made the jury wonder why the defense hadn't wanted it to be played. So they'd appealed both because they'd not been allowed to play the recording, and because the prosecution had offered to play it.

The defense also protested the admission into evidence of the syringe that was only similar to the one allegedly used on Clara, but the court ruled that there was nothing improper in the admission of the syringe, since it was clearly and accurately identified as only a similar syringe for purposes of illustration. The defense had even, during the trial, elicited a bit of testimony from Clara about how the syringe in evidence had differed from the syringe used on her.

A lawyer testified that he'd been meeting with Brown about a business matter shortly before noon on the 19th, and that Brown had returned "between 1:30 and 2:00," contrary to Beatrice Duran's testimony that Brown had been attending to Clara from about 11 a.m. to about 12:30. Brown's lawyer argued that "It is certainly more probably that an attorney at law would be speaking the truth than Mrs. Duran, Clara's girl friend." But both Beatrice and the lawyer had been speaking from memory, and Brown herself had testified that she'd visited Clara and Lucy's home at about noon on the 19th, and that she had driven Beatrice Duran to work at about 1:00 or 1:30. The judge instructed the jury to weigh for themselves how irreconcilable the time issue was. I'd add personally that if Brown really had been consulting with an attorney at the time, he'd have the appointment on his books -- otherwise how could he bill his client for his time?

The jury had found no trouble reconciling the testimony, and found Brown guilty of both abortions -- Lucy's and Clara's -- and of the murder of Lucy. Brown appealed on the grounds that she couldn't be convicted of two crimes -- murder and abortion -- for the same act. The court agreed with her, letting the murder conviction stand and throwing out the abortion conviction.

A dissenting judge opined, "The act of committing an abortion and the act of killing a person while attempting to do this are not merely the same act made punishable in different ways. Not only are these two offenses separate and distinct in a legal sense and each dependent upon evidence not required in the other, but as a practical matter it cannot be said that the two charges involve but one act. The act of committing an abortion may be done without causing the death of the party operated upon. The act which causes the death of the same person is usually another act, careless or otherwise, which, while it may be committed in connection with the first and about the same time, involves a further and additional element." In other words, he argued, the abortion was one crime; performing it so carelessly as to kill Lucy Sanchez was another.

Brown appeared to be a professional lay abortionist; I have been unable to determine if she had any medical training.

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion

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