The Face in the Window

Posted on Categories Legal History, Legal Practice, Public

John Luther Bryant was a happy guy as he drove down the dusty roads of rural Pickens County, Alabama.  Life was good on the family farm where he and his spinster sister, Miss Grace Bryant, worked to scratch out a living and raise enough food and chickens to support themselves while enjoying the peace and quiet of a simple country lifestyle.

John was a man of diminutive stature, some attributing that to poor nutrition as a child.  But he was strong, sinewy, and lithe — physical attributes he proudly put to good use working his day job as a sanitation engineer (garbage man) for the City of Gordo, Alabama.

As John drove into town he had no reason to suspect the fate he was about to face.  As was his regular practice, John and his coworker rode on the back of the Gordo garbage truck doing their regular route.  They hopped off at each house to empty the trash and then get back onto the truck to ride to the next block.

As the truck rumbled down the uneven streets of Gordo, the unexpected happened and John’s number was called. 

The rear Eaton axle of the Ford garbage truck suddenly split, sending the rear wheels cascading wildly down the street.  The back of the truck hit the street with such force that John was catapulted high into the air, landing on the side of the truck on his way down.  The force of the impact was so great that it broke John’s ribs, one of which pierced his heart, killing him instantly.

Although neither John Luther nor Grace Bryant were married or had any children, they had a large passel of nieces and nephews who suddenly remembered their deep and abiding affection for Uncle John and Aunt Grace.  Indeed, more relatives than they ever knew they had came forth grieving and mourning poor old John’s tragic demise.

They soon made their way to a big-city lawyer in Birmingham who immediately saw the value of bringing a product liability wrongful death suit.  The mourners began to feel better and their affection for Miss Grace, the plaintiff-executrix of John’s estate grew each day.

Although John was killed instantly and therefore had no conscious pain and suffering and was at an age nearing retirement with only meager wages and no real future loss of income, the lawyer for the grieving relatives recalled that Alabama law allows only punitive damages for wrongful death cases on the theory that life is too precious to be measured by mere compensation.  Therefore, the question was not how much John Luther Bryant suffered or what his earning capacity might be, but rather, how much money defendants had and how much of their net worth would be enough to punish them for taking John’s life.

After all, many Alabama wrongful death cases had produced multimillion dollar verdicts.  With those statistics firmly in mind, the Bryant family lawyer set about to evaluate the case, and decide whom to sue.  He settled on my clients, Ford Motor Company and Eaton Corporation, and also CSX (formerly known as U.S. Steel Corporation), who made the steel for the axle which split apart, along with a few local repair facilities to prevent removal based on diversity.

To prove his case, the plaintiff’s lawyer retained a trial-tested forensic metallurgist from Auburn University, who carefully examined the steel and (to no one’s surprise) found that it was defective.  However, he opined at several depositions that the cause of the failure was “trashy steel,” thereby implicating its manufacturer, CSX which had failed to manufacture it to Eaton’s specifications.  He also opined that Eaton and Ford may not have been diligent in fully inspecting the steel and not warning about the potential that this axle, like any product, could fail.

The lawsuit was filed and, after discovery and some motions, was set for trial in Carrollton, Alabama, the seat of Pickens County.  Carrollton is a quaint small town nestled in rolling hills about 40 miles west of Tuscaloosa (home of the University of Alabama) and near the Mississippi state line.  It is a town which seems frozen in time.  Carrollton is famous for its courthouse and also for being the home of the then-manager of the Boston Red Sox, Butch Hobson, who had been the starting third baseman and quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide and played many years for the Red Sox.  Butch had two sets of wives and kids in Carrollton, where he was kept very busy devoting himself energetically to his two families and local causes during the few months of the year when he was home.  But it was the courthouse that caught my attention because of the haunting legend I had heard about “The Face in The Window.”

To learn more about this famous legend, I checked local records, talked to Alabama lawyers, and did some research on the history of what is probably the best-known courthouse in the State of Alabama.  A comparatively small structure of Italianate architecture popular in the late 1800’s, the courthouse, like so many wonderful old courthouses, sits in the center of the town square, where people gather to stroll and sit on benches enjoying snacks, playing checkers, and just taking in the scene.

I retained local lawyer W.O. “Buddy” Kirk Jr., one of only five lawyers in Pickens County.  I quickly learned from Lawyer Kirk the story behind the “Face,” which I thought was an interesting tale, but likely one that was embellished over time.

To put the story in perspective, it is important to understand some Pickens County history.  The County came into existence by an act of the Alabama Legislature in 1820.  There is apparently some confusion and debate concerning who the County is named for.  Some claim that it honors Israel Pickens, the second elected governor of Alabama, who served from 1821 to 1825.  There is some doubt about that since his service actually started after the County was created.  Other historians say the County was named for General Andrew Pickens of South Carolina, based in part on the fact that many people from South Carolina migrated to the Pickens County area in the early 1800’s.

It is not clear when the first courthouse in the County came into existence, although some early history seems to indicate that there was a “little log courthouse” which was located in a town then called “Pickens Courthouse.”  It was later changed to Pickens and then became known in 1835 as Pickensville.  The Town of Pickensville, Alabama, still exists today, but the courthouse is located, as previously pointed out, in the town of Carrollton.

Carrollton is named for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland.  Carroll, who died in 1832, was famous for being the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.  He was a proud patriot who always insisted on signing his name “Charles Carroll of Carrollton” so that the British would not confuse him with any other person with the then common last name of “Carroll.”

Although there are not any viable records to determine the date when the first courthouse was constructed, its destruction is well documented.  Now we return to the topic of my first two blogs, the Civil War.

On April 4, 1865, just days before General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Union Army General John T. Croxton marched through Alabama into the City of Tuscaloosa where his troops burned the University of Alabama to the ground, leaving only a solitary chapel which stands on the campus to this day.  A detachment of Croxton’s army under the command of Captain William A. Sutherland marched 40 miles to Pickens County to gather information, as well as to serve as a decoy for Croxton, whose main purpose was to destroy the railroad between Demopolis, Alabama and Meridian, Mississippi.

Union Forces succeeded in capturing nine Confederate scouts in Carrollton and then proceeded, for reasons never made clear, to burn the commissary depot and the courthouse.  To this day the good people of Pickens County claim, with compelling logic, that burning their cherished courthouse served no useful military purpose.

But the resilient citizenry rallied and despite the financial woes of the post-war Reconstruction era managed to raise $20,000 to build a new courthouse.  People were enormously proud of this accomplishment and took great pride in their new courthouse.  Then tragedy struck.

On the night of November 16, 1876, the courthouse caught on fire and burned again.  Arson was strongly suspected, but there were no witnesses and no real evidence.

Once again the people of Pickens County stepped up to the challenge and dug deep to rebuild the courthouse.  The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1877, but trials did not begin until March, 1878.  The courthouse was a three-story structure that had no jail, but did have an attic or garret on the third floor.

In January 1878, before trials or hearings were held, somebody uncovered information about a fugitive who confessed to a number of crimes in Pickens County, including burglaries and arsons.  In his confession he implicated an African-American named Henry Wells as being responsible for burning the courthouse.  Deputies were sent to arrest Wells and wounded him at least twice in the process.  He was returned to Carrollton on January 29, 1878.  The next day, he allegedly signed a confession of questionable validity, given the fact that he obviously was illiterate and just placed his “mark” for his signature.  He did admit to being in the courthouse, but never specifically said that he had set any fires.

Emotions ran high and once townsfolk learned that Wells had been captured and was being held by the local sheriff, a lynch mob formed.  Since there was no jail, the sheriff put the wounded Wells upstairs in the attic for his own protection.

As the mob formed on the street below, legend has it that as the traumatized Wells was looking out the window of the attic a lightening bolt from a massive thunderstorm struck the courthouse and etched Wells’ anguished face on the window pane.

It is not clear whether Wells ultimately was hung or died at the hands of the lynch mob or from his wounds.  It is known however, that in February 1878 the County paid $5 for a coffin for Wells and another $2 to dig a grave.  Wells was gone but his legacy has lived on haunting the courthouse to this day.

Since that date, local historians point out that all the other windows in the courthouse, except the one with Wells’ face, have been broken during tornadoes or violent hail storms.  Engineers from the University of Alabama, Auburn, and other places have sought to remove the image by using soap, gasoline, and all manner of other solvents, all without success.

And so, armed with that colorful history, I arrived in Carrollton in March 1992 and made my way to Lawyer Kirk’s office.  Before parking, I drove around the square and looked at the courthouse from all different angles without being able to see the fabled image, an effort which confirmed my skepticism.

When I entered the office of my affable and talented local counsel, I told him of my unsuccessful efforts.  Buddy nodded knowingly and then instructed me that in order to see the face I would need to go stand under the tree where the lynch mob was forming and look up.  I followed his instructions and, sure enough, there on the third floor was a large arrow pointing at a window pane.  The sun was not shining on it, clouds or shade had darkened that side of the courthouse.  An anguished African-American face was indeed clearly visible on the window pane.

The trial took place beginning on March 24, 1992.  The jury we picked was racially mixed.  Some wore bib overalls and simple home-spun cotton dresses.  The courtroom evoked memories of Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow in “Inherit the Wind” and Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Each day during the trial, Lawyer Kirk’s wife would come to his office to set the table in the conference room and serve us a wonderful lunch.  When we would leave the office in the morning for court and return again in the afternoon, there would be a line of local citizens, carrying baskets of eggs, dressed chickens, vegetables, fruit, and other produce offered in payment for Lawyer Kirk’s services.  Each of them bowed reverently as they made their offerings to their beloved “Lawyer Kirk.”  Although there are many advantages to practicing in a big city law firm, I get goose bumps whenever I think about those simple country people and reflect on what a great privilege it is to be a lawyer.

One day, as we returned to court following our sumptuous noon repast, we were intercepted by the plaintiff’s lawyer, who reported that he had settled with our co-defendant, CSX, and that (surprise, surprise) the expert he was presenting that afternoon had now changed his opinion and was going to testify that the sole proximate cause of the failure was Eaton’s negligent design.

Despite the peaceful surroundings of the courthouse and the comfortable lunch I had enjoyed, I was, to put it mildly, not happy.  I asked to see the judge and proceeded to unleash my volatile Irish temper, which I had masterfully held in check up to this moment.  I argued with a mixture of passion and outrage, creating a heat which the judge said probably had not been seen since the courthouse burned down for the second time.

In those portions of my presentation which were moderately coherent I reminded the court that I had deposed this despicable hired gun expert not once, but on four separate occasions.  I picked up each of the four deposition transcripts, one at a time, slamming them on the table.  The court reporter had to ask me to slow down because she was not used to “the way you Yankees talk like Gatling guns.”  I apologized as best I could given my extreme state of hyperventilation and admitted how upset I was.

Judge Clatus Junkin nodded his head and said “Ok, I can sure see that, and I understand how y’all feel.”  He then asked me if I had any motions as opposed to emotions.  I accepted his invitation and moved to preclude the expert from testifying on the grounds that it was too late for him to change his opinion and to allow him to do so at the 11th hour would be an outrageous miscarriage of justice.  After some further argument the judge urged the plaintiff’s counsel to consider accepting the $30,000 settlement offer which was still on the table.  Plaintiff’s counsel said his bottom line was $5 million”  Judge Junkin then granted my motion.

He then asked if I had any more motions.  I did — and said: “Since Your Honor has now excluded this witness from giving any opinion that would support a finding of liability against my clients, I move that he not be allowed to testify at all since he cannot provide any helpful or probative evidence.”  Judge Junkin granted that motion as well and told plaintiff’s counsel to call his next witness.

The stunned plaintiff’s lawyer was then forced to call all of his remaining witnesses over the next two days of trial.  One of them was Miss Grace Bryant herself, now in her late 80’s.  She squinted out from her wheelchair at the large crowd of nieces and nephews and newly proclaimed relatives and answered questions on direct examination in slow halting tones.

On cross-examination I decided to kneel down on one knee next to her wheelchair.  I asked her a few questions from this position and the following colloquy occurred:

Q. “Miss Grace, do you remember from your deposition that you told us that y’all had never been to Court?

A. Yes.

Q. And y’all told me that your daddy had given you some good advice, didn’t you?

A. Yes.

Q. What advice did he give you way back when you were just a little girl?

A. He told me whatever y’all do, don’t ever go to the courthouse.

Q. Now as you go on into your 80’s, what do you think your daddy would say if he saw you testifying here in this courthouse today?

A. I suspect he’d say I’m a damn fool.

Q. Thank you Miss Grace, I have no further questions for you.”

Plaintiff’s counsel was not a happy man.  He wore a khaki suit and in the warmth of a late March day in an un-airconditioned room. His perspiration stained through his suit, running all the way down from his armpits to halfway above his waist.  When he would raise his hands in objection or to make a point, I would move the court that to protect the lawyers, jurors, and spectators, he should instruct the lawyer to keep his arms at his side!

That motion was denied, but the next one I made wasn’t.  I moved at the close of plaintiff’s case for a directed verdict, and it was granted.

After a wonderful dinner in a delightful restaurant in Aliceville, Alabama, I posed for pictures with my trial team in front of the “Haunted Courthouse” the next day (see below) and then headed for the Birmingham airport.

I have not been back to beautiful Carrollton in the almost 20 years that have passed, but that experience is etched indelibly in my memory just as the face is etched on the window.  I think about it often, especially when I stop at the chapel on the University of Alabama campus and then drive out of town chanting “Roll Tide Roll!”

2 thoughts on “The Face in the Window”

  1. Frank, I read with interest your information on the famous Ford Motor Company lawsuit that Buddy Kirk was local counsel on. I remember it all well as I am sure that Betty Poole does since we worked throughout it and many years more with Buddy. My memory about the lunches and local people bringing gifts is a little different however. I remember well your “God Bless” in all your communication.

  2. Frank

    How well I remember this case. It was indeed an honor to have worked with such able counsel as you. Hope all has been well with you this last 25 years as it has with me and my family by God’s blessings.

    One thing, that about the chickens,etc. was actually about my great grandfather I.R. Hinton a lawyer here in Carrollton before 1900 up to his death in 1917.

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