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The People v. Ryan





WRIT OF ERROR to the Circuit Court of Winnebago County; the Hon. WILLIAM R. DUSHER, Judge, presiding.


By this writ of error Helen Joan Ryan, hereinafter referred to as defendant, seeks a reversal of a judgment entered in the circuit court of Winnebago County wherein she was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to serve three to ten years in the Illinois State Reformatory for Women.

Defendant was indicted on a two-count indictment charging her with murder and manslaughter. Both counts charge that death was caused by wrapping a new-born baby in a towel and placing it in an overnight case, thereby producing death due to obstruction of blood aeration. A motion to quash the indictment was denied, and she pleaded not guilty. The trial before a jury resulted in a verdict finding defendant guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Motions for a new trial and arrest of judgment were subsequently overruled and defendant was sentenced as aforesaid.

The principal error assigned in this review is lodged in a factual controversy, so we will relate the circumstances surrounding the homicide rather fully. In July, 1955, the defendant, an unmarried woman of 27 years of age, resided in Rockford, Illinois, with two other young ladies. She had been a registered nurse since 1950, employed in that capacity by two doctors and had from time to time assisted in the prenatal care of pregnant women. Defendant had known since January that she was pregnant, and that it was fast approaching the time when her child would be born.

The three-room-and-bath apartment then occupied by the defendant and other young ladies was so arranged that defendant and one Carol Fiebelkorn shared the same bedroom each having separate beds. The bathroom adjoined the bedroom. A third young lady slept in the living room.

About 3 A.M. on Saturday, July 30, defendant went to the bathroom unattended, and shortly thereafter the baby was born. Before its arrival defendant had prepared two lengths of heavy crochet thread, washed a pair of scissors in soapy water, put a supply of newspaper in the bathroom and placed a large beach towel on the bathroom floor upon which to lie. Previously she had placed a small empty overnight case in the bathroom behind the bathtub. This overnight case was just large enough to contain the wrapped body of a baby and could be locked tightly with a key. Defendant had this key along with other keys on a chain in the pocket of her bathrobe which she had on when she went to the bathroom to give birth to the child.

Immediately after the child was born, defendant tied the umbilical cord in a manner to protect both mother and child and cut the cord between the two tied places. She then took the normal steps for her own protection, wrapped the placenta in the newspaper and put it in the wastebasket in the bathroom. Thereafter she baptized the child with cold water from the bathroom faucet. Some 45 minutes after birth she wrapped the child in the beach towel upon which she had been lying. She then put the wrapped child in the overnight case, closed the lid, turned the key and left it in the bathroom. She thereafter went back to bed. Later, on Saturday morning and before her roommates awakened, defendant took the wastebasket to the trash can and burned the contents, leaving the overnight case and its contents in the bathroom.

Defendant worked her regular hours on Saturday at the doctor's office where she was employed. On Saturday evening she unlocked and opened the overnight case briefly, then closed and relocked it. The baby remained locked in the overnight case until approximately 1:30 o'clock the following Sunday afternoon when she removed the body of the baby from its container, unwrapped it from the beach towel, rewrapped it in a sheet, wrapped newspapers around it, put the bundle in a paper shopping bag and tied the whole with a cord. The beach towel was wrapped in a second package. Defendant then took the shopping bag containing the baby's body just outside the house and buried it in a shallow grave.

On August 17, 1955, defendant went to the offices of a charity in Rockford at the request of a caseworker. She told the caseworker that she knew why she had been sent for, began to cry, saying that she had become pregnant out of wedlock, had delivered a baby herself and had buried it. The caseworker took her to the juvenile probation officer where she was met by two policewomen, Bernice Olson and Gloria Nelson, who questioned her at length and to whom she told substantially the same things, drawing for them a diagram of the place where she had buried the baby. Thereafter defendant gave a statement which was typed by policewoman Olson and signed by defendant.

Later that afternoon the two policewomen accompanied by three detectives, the coroner and two newspaper photographers went to the location defendant had indicated on the diagram. Three or four inches below the surface of the ground, the coroner uncovered a paper-wrapped package with a strong odor. He took this package to Dr. Paul Van Pernis, a pathologist and a director of the Swedish-American Hospital laboratory. Dr. Van Pernis unwrapped the package and found a full-term female baby approximately eight pounds in weight upon which he performed an autopsy.

After the finding of the baby's body, the two policewomen returned to the police station and again discussed the matter with defendant. Whereupon, the defendant gave a second signed statement to policewoman Nelson who typed the same.

The position of defendant was that the baby, if born alive, was dead at the time she wrapped it in the beach towel and placed it in the overnight case and that death was due to natural causes.

The first error urged is that the evidence in this case failed to prove the corpus delicti beyond a reasonable doubt, in that it does not show that the death was caused by the criminal agency of the defendant. It is earnestly argued by defendant that no evidence was submitted as to the cause of death.

To establish the corpus delicti in a prosecution for the killing of a new-born child two elements must concur, namely, birth of the child alive and death resulting from a criminal agency. These ingredients of the crime must be proved beyond a reasonable ...

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