“The Tipping Point”: How a 1981 Macon Trial Exonerating a Black Med Center Nurse Showed a Macon Jury Rising Above Race Bias
By Dr. Fred Howard
“Deliberate Killings Suspected in Several Medical Center Deaths.” Residents of Macon stared at this front page headline over their morning coffee on August 4, 1979. There was suspicion that someone was sabotaging the medical equipment in the intensive care unit at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in ways that caused the death of several patients. Suspense built in the community about the investigation of these deaths until October 31, 1979 when Barbara Jean Williams, a nurse and – by the way – an African American, was publicly identified as the defendant in the case. She faced an indictment for murder in connection with one of these deaths and aggravated assault in the case of several others. The story developed into the top news story of the year in the Macon Telegraph and Ms. Williams would go on to endure a public ordeal spanning nearly two years.
Ms. Williams’ troubles began in 1979 when two of her fellow coworkers accused her of deliberately tampering with medical equipment at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in ways that could have resulted in harm to patients, even death. She was never directly questioned by her supervisors in the ICU about the alleged incidents and she was not made aware of the charges against her until her indictment. She did know that she was under a cloud of suspicion because she had been suspended from work at the Medical Center with pay earlier in 1979 while an internal investigation was in process. Then on August 4, 1979, she read the headlines in the Macon Telegraph just like everyone else and in that way came to grasp the gravity of her situation.
The article stated that the DA’s office was investigating more than a dozen cases from the ICU at the Medical Center of Central Georgia where patients, who were not terminally ill but expected to recover, may have been the victims of what the DA characterized as “sabotage.” In spite of the fact that two of the Medical Center’s own internal investigations had failed to turn up any evidence of intentional wrongdoing, as well as the confidence that goes with knowing the real story, Ms. Williams was still forced to live under a tremendous cloud during all these events. When the article appeared on August 4, she could connect the dots in the article. She was the person under suspicion.
Specifically, the investigation had been prompted by personal testimony of two nurses that suggested someone was tampering with life support equipment, including emergency warning systems, and IV equipment. One case was described where an IV needle was pulled from the arm, and readers of the newspaper were led to believe that the man died as a direct result of this. These nurses working in the unit became suspicious of another nurse who was always near the scene of these incidents. The DA did admit from the beginning that most of the evidence was circumstantial. The person allegedly responsible for these acts was initially only identified in the article as a woman “suspect” who has been suspended with pay.
In subsequent days, this article was condemned in letters to the editor by concerned citizens and by medical personnel familiar with medical terminology as the worst type of sensationalistic journalism. One citizen wrote to the editor to complain that the unidentified employee was being “tried in the press.” It would certainly seem that way to Ms. Williams, who still had not been approached directly about any of the incidents in question. Still no one other than her attorneys, who by this point she had of course secured, had asked her for her side of the story.
As I said, Barbara Jean Williams was publicly identified as the suspect on Oct 31, 1979. Based on the personal testimonies, the DA’s investigation of the medical records, and evidence examined by the Bibb Superior Court Grand Jury, she was indicted for murder in connection with these allegations. She would live with this indictment for the next seven months, until June of 1980 when Superior Court Judge Cloud Morgan would rule favorably on a motion by one of Ms. William’s attorneys, that the murder charge be thrown out. Still, Ms. Williams would go on to stand trial, fifteen months later, on eight charges of aggravated assault. In all, Ms. William’s public ordeal would end up spanning more than two years.
I began my medical residency at the Medical Center in Macon on Jan. 1, 1981, at the time that the place was completely abuzz with all the facts and hype surrounding this sensational case.
Ms. Williams’ trial finally began on Sept. 9 of that same year, 1981. For the next sixteen days, the trial would be the front page news everyday in the Telegraph. Over the course of the trial, the medical records gave little evidence of improprieties, and the accusers even admitted under oath that they had never seen Ms. Williams tampering with the monitors or IVs. So in the end it was the personalities of three nurses, Ms. Williams and her two accusers, that came front and center as the prosecution and the defense made their case. Each of these three was questioned under oath by the prosecution and the defense. Just how the character of these three people determined their actions in the ICU and affected their working relationship made up most of the evidence upon which the jury had to decide the case. The case finally boiled down to “they said” versus “she said.” The basis of the district attorney’s case based almost entirely on the testimony of these two other nurses.
In defense of Ms. Williams, her attorneys concentrated their efforts on discrediting her two accusers. They questioned these two nurses in the courtroom at length, and convinced the jury that there was sufficient reason to question the competency of their testimony against Ms. Williams. Later, as witnesses for the defense were questioned, a picture of these accusers emerged as “two renegade nurses [that] can carry the District Attorney’s office and the court system on a wild goose chase.” That was the characterization given by in the courtroom by Ms. Williams’ defense attorney. One witness called for the defense, a nurse with extensive psychiatric nursing experience, described this pair of nurses, Ms. Williams’ accusers, as “very dangerous people” with “extremely paranoid” personality traits. In her estimation, paranoid types tend to blame others for their own shortcomings. Further, they can be quite convincing, even able “to dupe judges, juries and, in some instances, district attorneys” she remarked while being cross examined by the district attorney. If you can imagine this scene, her remark brought uproarious laughter to the otherwise quite somber proceedings.
In the end, Ms. Williams was acquitted of all charges against her. The headline in the Macon Telegraph on September 25, 1981 read, “Williams is Innocent.”
Time can give us some perspective on things. Thirty-five years have now passed since Ms. Williams was indicted for murder. Reviewing the newspaper reports of these events, one gets the impression that she was the extraordinarily unfortunate victim of circumstance. She was someone just doing her job – but happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Things got out of hand, and she got caught as an innocent bystander in a perfect storm of legal and political feuding, and then became the lightning rod in a highly charged controversy.
However, there is an untold story here. In the past few years, I became so intrigued with the ramifications of this case and how it might have affected the lives of the primary people involved that I looked up Ms. Williams and the one of her two attorneys who is still living and reflected on these events with them – from the indictment in 1979 to the trial in 1981 and their life subsequent to all this. This is what struck me about Ms. Williams’ story. Hers is not the profile of someone who was a victim. It is rather one of a woman who faced extreme adversity with remarkable courage and restraint, managed to rise above it, and then emerge from the ordeal a stronger person. It is the profile of a hero, not a victim.
In retrospect, it’s easy to say, “This case should never have come to trial. This case is as simple as black and white.” Such an argument could have been made by Ms. Williams’ attorneys’ in their closing arguments. There was little factual evidence against her, only the testimony of two nurses. But this argument might have echoed too loudly the words of attorney Atticus Finch, who actually used these very words in his closing arguments to the jury in the fictional legal case against Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. And we know how the simple black and white of it did not save the literary Tom Robinson from the verdict of guilty by his all-white jury. And here we are dealing with a real-life case, and this real person, Ms. Williams – an African American – faced virtually the same jeopardy. Just like Tom Robinson, she had been indicted on a capital offense, and faced trial in the Deep South against all-white accusers before an all-white jury. Yes, the charges against Ms. Williams were “flimsy.” At least that was the word used in a Macon Telegraph editorial immediately after the trial, and the editorial that went on to say that it was questionable whether the charges should ever have been brought against her. But even thirty-four years after the trial that summation seems a bit facile – given the front page media attention devoted to this case, the intense feelings generated in the community by these headlines, and the torment endured by Ms. Williams, who was found innocent of all these charges after her two-year public ordeal.
The jeopardy Ms. Williams faced was very real, and her attorney, Phil Brown, who went on to become a superior court judge of Bibb County, said this to me in my interview with him. “The outcome of the trial was a miracle.” Judge Brown went on to tell me that if the case had been tried at a different time in our history, Ms. Williams would have been convicted. In his summary of the whole affair, he said, “Fortunately, it was tried at a tipping point in our society.” By this he meant that our society was beginning to reach a point where a judge and jury could get beyond what had always been the overarching issue of race and actually try such a case on the merits of the case. “I do not think that color entered into it,” Brown related to me, and that is how he characterized the jury’s treatment of the case.
Brown was an experienced defense attorney in criminal law by this time he defended Ms. Williams in 1979. What made the case qualify as a miracle to him was his realistic assessment of the situation. He had seen cases where race did enter into it and he was concerned. As he reflected back on the trial, mostly what he remembered was the strength of character of Ms. Williams. “She was an inspiring person, not overly anxious. “She actually trusted the system more than I did,” Brown shared. Brown was convinced, after the dust of the case settled, that it was several things about Ms. Williams’ character that resulted in her acquittal. “She was well thought of at the hospital, and those who testified against her were not well thought of.” Brown feels that the press at that time did not adequately cover “what a good person Barbara Jean Williams was.”
When Ms. Williams was first approached about giving me an interview, she was reluctant to revisit these distressing events. She stated that over the intervening years she had tried to forget all that had happened during those two years of public scrutiny. However, her family encouraged her to consent because, as her daughter expressed it to me, “We are so proud of the way she handled herself through the whole ordeal.” Graciously Ms. Williams did finally agree to meet me over coffee and answer a few questions. She is now a grandmother of eight and the great-grandmother of three, and was quite calm and assured as she reflected back on events she describes as “devastating.”
She admits that the years have not given her an answer to the question of why this happened to her. When she first saw the headlines in August of 1979 about “deliberate killings” at the Medical Center, she knew it was about her because her supervisors and her attorneys had prepared her. She was also aware at the time that her accusers, who had resigned from the hospital amid turmoil earlier that year, had gone to the DA’s office with their story that implicated her. Still, she was “in shock.” One of her most vivid memories of that time period was when the DA appeared on local television and said they should throw the book at her, referring to Ms. Williams.
When Ms. Williams went to trial, she had been a nurse at the Medical Center for twenty years. After the trial she went back to work in that position for another twenty years. Nice bookends of faithful service for this unassuming woman forced to endure public scrutiny. She was so well loved and respected by her patients and her fellow employees that even after her retirement she constantly received calls wanting her to come back to work part time. “They would call me at 4:00 am and tell me to get my clothes on and come help them,” Ms. Williams recounted with a smile as she reflected back on the months after her retirement in 2001. “But I told them that forty years was enough.”
Immediately after her trial, Ms. Williams had been asked whether she wanted to go back to her old job. Understandably, she had voiced apprehension. She had gained quite a bit of notoriety during the ordeal as her picture had appeared on the front pages of the Telegraph day after day. At that time she acknowledged there might be people in the community who did not accept her innocence, but her faith in the overall goodness of humanity prevailed. “I think there probably are some people like that, but I haven’t met them,” she said. The Medical Center supported her throughout the investigation, the trial, and continued to stand by her in the aftermath. She went back to doing the job she loved, the job she was good at, and if the false charges against her ever made her subsequent life difficult she has long ago dismissed such hardships. “I had no problems at all,” is the way she chooses to describe the last half of her career.
If Ms. Williams harbored any bitterness about these events, it must have dissipated long ago. “I learned to forgive them,” is the only response she gave me in response to questions about her accusers. However, she acknowledges that the experience made her a bit more circumspect in her regard for other people. “I look at people slightly differently now. You can’t trust everyone you meet.” But because of the support she has received from friends and supporters, she says that the ordeal also strengthened her ability to trust herself and others “even more than before.”
Was race ever an issue? Though the court proceedings may have been conducted through color-blind lenses, the events prompting this entire affair were not. Ms. Williams had overheard remarks by her supervisors in the ICU, who became her accusers, about “getting the blacks out of here,” referring to the ICU staffing. Confirming her suspicions that race figured into the mindset of her accusers, Ms. Williams notes that in the initial investigation the only two other workers who were under suspicion were also black. Brown, her attorney, speculates that her accusers were looking for a vulnerable person in the system to accuse. “They were relying on race to give people a bad perception.” Ms. Williams [or any other black person] was perceived as a vulnerable person to accuse. I do not think they would have been successful [in bringing this case so far] if they had accused a white person.” Fortunately, according to Brown, this strategy backfired.
People had a good perception of Ms. Williams, and she had an excellent reputation among her fellow workers and her patients. Not so with her accusers. In a case relatively devoid of facts, the jury’s assessment finally came down to who was to be believed – Ms. Williams or her accusers. Based largely on her strength of character, Ms. Williams convinced the jury that she was telling the truth, and they found her innocent.
By 1979 our country had reached the point where every citizen had the same rights by law. But practical issues of discrimination remained in many areas of society such as the workplace that made minorities vulnerable – as they still do today. Full civil rights for African Americans has been a series of “baby steps,” to borrow another of Harper Lee’s phrases from To Kill a Mockingbird, and the citizens of Bibb County witnessed one of those steps when Barbara Jean Williams was acquitted of all charges against her. In the quiet, dignified way that she met the onslaught of false charges against her and patiently waited for the opportunity to tell her side of the story, she demonstrated uncommon valor.
She trusted the system to give her a fair trial when many around her had their doubts – doubts they held with good reason. She had done nothing to deserve her ordeal, and had every right to be angry. When she took the stand in her own defense, she went there unbent, unbowed, and unbroken armed only with the strength of her person. She acquitted herself well, both in her trial and in her life. She needs to be remembered, as do the circumstances that brought her into the public eye. We need such harrowing reminders of the dysfunction in our society that still exists around racial issues – dysfunction that could bring an innocent person so close to conviction. Conversely, our remembrance of Ms. Williams and the miracle that occurred on September 25, 1981 can also serve us as a shining example of how far we as a society have come down the road toward fulfilling King’s dream of living in a nation where people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Dr. Howard is the author of “Transforming Faith: Stories of Change from a Lifelong Spiritual Seeker,” which is a finalist in the 2015 Indie Excellence Book Award Competition. It is available through Amazon by clicking here. http://www.amazon.com/Transforming-Faith-Stories-Lifelong-Spiritual/dp/1502521806