Today's Joplin Globe featured the news that former Jasper County Circuit Court Judge Charles Teel had died. I really didn't know Judge Teel at all.
I only covered one case in Judge Teel's courtroom, but that turned out to be the right one. I've told the story in a previous edition of The Turner Report of how I happened to be assigned to be The Carthage Press reporter at the hearing to determine whether Nancy Cruzan should have her feeding tubes removed. Nancy, whom I had known slightly as a teenager, had been in a car accident near Carthage in 1982 and had been in a persistent vegetative state since that time.
It was October 1990 and I had only been a general assignment reporter at The Press for six months. The courts were generally the province of reporter Pat Halvorson, but the hearing was on a Thursday, her day off was Thursday, and she had things she needed to do. Managing Editor Neil Campbell asked me if I could cover the hearing and I jumped at the opportunity. After all, this was a case that had gone all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court before being returned to the Jasper County Courthouse.
I was a little overwhelmed by the amount (and caliber) of the media that filled up most of the seats in the small upstairs courtroom. Since there were so many people shoehorned into the room and since it was a hearing with no jury, media were allowed to sit in the jury box. I was there with reporters for The New York Times, Associated Press, Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as well as two sketch artists for major newspapers and some four-states TV reporters.
Had I have been a bit more intelligent, I probably would have followed the lead of Globe reporter Jo Ellis, who was smart enough to distance herself from the media and took a seat in the middle of the courtroom, but I was too dazzled by being a part, if just a minor one, in such a major story.
The U. S. Supreme Court, a few months earlier, had ruled that people had a "right-to-die" in situations similar to Nancy's if they had clearly expressed their desire beforehand. The hearing in Jasper County was to determine if she had expressed that desire.
The morning testimony featured former co-workers of Nancy's who indicated she had said she would not want to be kept alive by artificial means if she were in that type of situation. As the testimony continued, I sat in the jury box, jotting down the same notes, seeing things in the same way as every other reporter sitting there with me.
The best thing that ever happened to me was when Judge Teel declared a noon recess. We were told to return to court at 1:30. Realizing that seating would once again be at a premium, I entered the courtroom at 10 minutes past one.
The jury box was already filled.
After silently cursing my fate (I could no longer be one of the big boys), I grabbed a seat two rows behind where Joe and Joyce Cruzan. Nancy's parents, and Chris White, Nancy's sister, were sitting with their attorney, William Colby.
Seated in the row directly in front of me were Chris's daughters, Angie and Miranda Yocum, the nieces that Nancy had adored. If memory serves me correctly, at that time Angie was a sophomore at Webb City High School and Miranda was a freshman. I noticed that Miranda had a sketch pad in her lap and was drawing a highly-detailed rendition of what was going on in the courtroom.
At that point, I made the decision to write two stories about this hearing, the official one over the testimony, and a sidebar about the nieces, focusing primarily on the little sketch artist. If I had stayed in that jury box, I would have missed out on a story that changed my journalism career.
I continued taking down the testimony at the same time I was jotting down details about Miranda and Angie. When one of Nancy's former bosses testified that Nancy said she wouldn't want to be kept alive by artificial means because "vegetables couldn't hug their nieces" I watched the girls' reaction. Angie began crying. Miranda's face was reddening, but she put her arm around her older sister and began patting her shoulder.
As the testimony wore on, Joe Cruzan left the courtroom and headed toward the bathroom. I followed, something that I normally would never have done, but I was going after the story even it meant being just one more person to invade this man's privacy.
After he finished with the purpose for which he had left the courtroom, I identified myself and asked if I could ask him a couple of questions. He sighed and said, "All right."
I told him I had been watching his granddaughter and she appeared to be quite the little artist. For a brief second, Joe Cruzan's face brightened and it appeared that some of the burden he had been carrying for years had been lifted. A smile crossed his face and he began talking about how talented Miranda was and how the family hoped she would become an artist. It was nearly 20 minutes before we returned to the courtroom. I didn't ask him any questions about his daughter. He didn't need any reporters asking him how he felt or asking him to relive the ordeal he and his family had gone through since Nancy's accident, but I definitely was not going to miss the chance to get information about Miranda.
At the end of the day, when the hearing concluded, Miranda presented her sketch to Colby, who was clearly touched. I am sure it remains one of his most cherished possessions.
It was another six weeks before Judge Teel made his decision. On Dec. 12, 1990, one of Judge Teel's secretaries called the media to let us know that the decision would be announced at 2 p.m. that afternoon. I didn't see Judge Teel that day. We were each given a copy of his decision which granted the Cruzans permission to remove the feeding tubes. Nancy died, some say for a second time, on Dec. 26, 1990.
That was the only time I ever stepped foot in Judge Teel's courtroom. It was definitely the right time to do so.
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