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On November 18, 1917, 16-year-old Fay Hamilton died in Spokane, Washington. Earlier that month, Hamilton had an abortion, and the county coroner concluded that complications from the procedure caused her death. Hamilton’s attending physician, Dr. James Sutherland, and Maude Hindes – a family friend and neighbor – both later testified that Hamilton told them just before she died that midwife Mary Swartz had used a catheter to perform the abortion at Anna Williams’s sanitarium.
On December 31, 1917, Swartz – a mother of eight – was charged with second-degree murder in Hamilton’s death. Swartz denied providing any medical treatment to Hamilton, including performing the abortion.
Swartz’s case went to trial before a jury in the Superior Court of Spokane County in May 1918. Deputy Prosecutor Harry Kinzel, together with Chief Prosecutor John B. White, prosecuted the case, and attorneys W.C. Donovan and George Armitage represented Swartz. Judge David Hurn presided over the trial.
The prosecution said that Swartz performed an abortion on Hamilton on November 9, 1917, while Hamilton was a patient at the Williams sanitarium.
Swartz testified and denied that she provided any medical treatment to Hamilton. Swartz said that a man had called her office on November 1, 1917, requesting treatment for a girl who was “in trouble.” Swartz said that she declined to provide treatment, explaining she did not perform abortions. She testified that the same man came to her office a few days later with Hamilton, whom he described as his niece. Swartz said she again declined to treat Hamilton and asked the man to leave. She said the man returned alone and requested recommendations for private sanitariums where he could potentially place Hamilton. Swartz testified that she told the man about the Williams sanitarium.
Swartz testified that around 8 p.m. on November 9, Williams asked her to stop by the sanitarium, which she did about 20 minutes later. Swartz said she was taken to a room occupied by Hamilton. According to Swartz, three other women were in the room: Williams; Flora Hamilton, who was the girl’s mother; and another unknown woman. Swartz said that Flora Hamilton initiated a discussion of her daughter’s medical situation, telling Swartz that Fay had come to the sanitarium after a soldier performed an abortion on her. Flora said her daughter had discussed other attempts at ending the pregnancy, including operating on herself, taking pills given to her by a physician, and swallowing turpentine. Swartz said she left the sanitarium after about 15 minutes.
Florence Reagle, a resident at the sanitarium, testified that she had opened the door and admitted Flora and Fay Hamilton on November 9. Reagle testified that she knew nothing about an abortion, only that Fay was ill. The defense planned to call Williams as a witness, but she was unable to be in court because her father was dying.
Flora Hamilton’s testimony directly contradicted Swartz’s account of events. Flora testified that she did not learn that Fay was in the sanitarium until November 11, and that she had Fay discharged the following day. She said she had not seen Swartz at that sanitarium or anywhere else prior to the trial. She testified that she went to the sanitarium for the first time on November 11, just after learning her daughter had been admitted.
Hindes testified about Fay’s dying declaration identifying Swartz as the person who performed her abortion and saying it occurred at the sanitarium.
On June 28, 1918, the jury found Swartz guilty of manslaughter. She was sentenced to one to 10 years in prison. Swartz told the judge, “I am just as innocent as a newborn babe. They have convicted an innocent woman … Those who are guilty are walking the streets today with unstained character.”
Swartz appealed. Her request for a new trial included an affidavit from Hindes, where Hindes identified herself as the other woman present when Swartz stopped by the sanitarium on November 9. Hindes said that she had accompanied Flora Hamilton to the sanitarium on November 9 at the request of both Flora and Fay. This new evidence contradicted Flora’s testimony that she was not at the sanitarium until November 11 and had never seen Swartz before the trial. When Hindes testified about Fay’s dying declaration at the trial, she had not included in her testimony anything about her presence at the sanitarium on November 9.
Based on this new evidence, the appellate court granted Swartz a new trial on July 30, 1919. The court set her retrial for October 1919, but Swartz’s husband became very ill and the trial was delayed. Swartz’s husband died in December 1919.
Swartz’s second trial began on January 7, 1920, before Superior Judge Hugo Oswald. Dr. Sutherland testified regarding Hamilton’s death and dying declaration. Williams testified that Swartz did not treat Fay at the sanitarium, and a new witness – a fellow patient at the sanitarium – testified that Fay told her a soldier performed her abortion. Most significantly, Flora Hamilton testified that she had not provided truthful testimony at the first trial, which she attributed to her grief at the death of her daughter. She admitted she was at the sanitarium with Fay on November 9. The jury acquitted Swartz on January 14, 1920.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.