KEY EVIDENCE IN THE 1925 TRIAL OF D. C. STEPHENSON
The main contention of the defense in the D. C. Stephenson trial was that Madge Oberholtzer died as the result of ingesting six bichloride of mercury tablets. The prosecution contended that Madge's cause of death was infected bite marks resulting from Stephenson's violent rape of Oberholtzer. According to Madge, as stated in her dying declaration, Stephenson raped her on an Indianapolis to Chicago train. He "chewed me all over my body...chewed my breasts until they bled...mutilated me all over my body." The next day, in an attempt to commit suicide, Madge secretly bichloride of mercury tablets and "only took six because they burnt me so." Whether the bites or the poison, or a combination of the two, caused Madge's death was hotly contested in the 1925 trial.
Appellant's Proposed Instruction No. 83: "The court instructs you that if you should find Madge Oberholtzer had been assaulted and raped or had been assaulted and beaten with intent to rape, by the defendants, or either of them, and that said act by the defendants had already been completed and ended, and if you find that no attempt was being made by the defendants, or either of them, to repeat said act or acts, and if you further find that said Madge Oberholtzer under such circumstances voluntarily swallowed a fatal dose of bichloride of mercury poison with intent to take her own life, because she felt aggrieved on account of said prior acts of the defendants, or either of them, and that said bichloride of mercury caused her death, then you would not be warranted in finding the defendants guilty, and you should find them not guilty." [The trial court refused to give instruction No. 83, and the Indiana Supreme Court found no error in its refusal to do so.]
We should think the same rule would apply if a defendant engaged in the commission of a felony such as rape or attempted rape, and inflicts upon his victim both physical and mental injuries, the natural and probable result of which would render the deceased mentally irresponsible and suicide followed, we think he would be guilty of murder....To say that there is no causal connection between the acts of appellant and the death of Madge Oberholtzer, and that the treatment accorded her by appellant had no causal connection with the death of Madge Oberholtzer would be a travesty on justice. [Indiana Supreme Court, State v Stephenson]
Only one argument by which the state sought to sustain the verdict of guilty under the first count of the indictment remains for consideration, viz., that one who inflicts a wound is held to contemplate and be responsible for the natural consequence of his act, and that at the time appellant committed the rape, or the attempted rape, he was bound to anticipate deceased's act of taking bichloride of mercury. I do not find any evidence to justify a finding that the taking of poison by deceased was such an act as a reasonable person under similar circumstances would have committed or was a natural consequence of the rape (or attempted rape, or the bite made during the same) which the appellant was bound by law to contemplate. [Justice Martin, dissenting in State v Stephenson]
The evidence showed only three possible causes of death, the wound on the breast, the poison, and the withholding of aid. The evidence connecting the wound with the death is, at the best, strikingly weak and unsatisfactory. The jury reasonably might have found that it was not a factor. Both the per curiam and the individual opinions agree that, in order for the appellant to be legally responsible for the taking of the poison by his victim, it was necessary that the jury find that the natural and probable consequence of appellant's mistreatment of Madge Oberholtzer was to render her mentally irresponsible, and also find that while thus mentally irresponsible, and as a result thereof, she procured and swallowed the poison. Under the foregoing test, the jury reasonably could have concluded that Stephenson was not legally responsible for Madge Oberholtzer's act of taking the poison. Further, both the per curiam and the individual opinions agree that the alleged acts of Stephenson in refusing or withholding aid cannot be considered a part of the offense of murder in attempted rape. In view of the foregoing, it is clear that the defendant was entitled to have the jury understand that he could not be convicted on the charge of murder in an attempted rape unless the jury should find (1) that the wound, with the resulting infection, caused death; or (2) that the defendant was legally responsible for the taking of the poison, and that death was caused by the poison; or (3) that the defendant was legally responsible for the taking of the poison, and that the death resulted from the concurring effects of the wound and the poison. [Justice Treanor, dissenting in State v Stephenson]
Testimony in State v Stephenson
What was the immediate cause of the death of Madge Oberholtzer?
Dr. Virgil Moon: In my opinion, the immediate cause of death was an infection carried through the blood stream, localizing in the lung and in the kidney, particularly in the kidney. That was the immediate cause. There were other and contributing causes.
After she had lived twenty-five days from the time she took the poison, to-wit, until April 11, say, it is your view that she should have recovered if complications had not set in, is that right?
Dr. Virgil Moon: That is my opinion, sir.
Infected Bite Marks Killed Madge
Mercury Tablets Killed Madge
This opinion evidence must be considered in connection with the other medical evidence, not in conflict therewith, regarding the bite and the infection. The evidence of the state does not establish the fact that the abscess in the lung or the infection in the kidney discovered by a post mortem examination was the result of infection from the bite on the breast. Dr. Warvel, witness for the state, testified: "I would not say certain that because there was an abrasion on one of the breasts and an abscess in one of the lungs that it would necessarily follow that one communicated germs to the other unless I could prove there was no other avenue of infection." It was undisputed that the deceased had recently suffered from the flu (influenza), from which such an abscess might have resulted.
Physicians as expert witnesses for the state testified that an infection could be carried from a surface wound to the lung by the blood stream; that such a process was known as septicemia, or infection of the blood (blood poisoning), and results in the development of pyemia or localization of the infection; and that such a condition would be accompanied by a marked rise in the temperature of the patient and could be definitely established by a microscopic examination of the patient's blood. The detailed record of deceased's temperature from March 17 to April 14, inclusive, as given by the nurse from her records, shows a gradual and not a marked rise of temperature, and although it clearly appears that the patient's blood was tested and examined, there was no testimony that the blood ever showed a condition of septicemia caused by the staphylococci infection on the breast. It thus appears that while the state proved that an abscess on the lung might or could result from an infection resulting from a bite on the breast, it did not establish as a fact that the infection of this decedent's lung was carried by her blood stream from an infected breast...
[Judge Martin, dissenting.]