The Night Hell Broke Loose in the Mountains
 
By Tom Word
 
 
    Our town had one traffic light in 1959, and that’s where it started.  Doctor Flanagan was stopped, waiting for the light to turn green.  Close beside him sat Mrs. Higgins, and behind her sat her young daughter.  Another car drove up behind them, and its driver blinked his lights, dim to bright, dim to bright.

    The traffic light changed, and Doctor Flanagan started south, up Franklin Street hill, past two blocks of modest single-family houses and then, prophetically, Sunset Cemetery on the right.  The other car at the traffic light was close on his bumper, lights still blinking, dim to bright, dim to bright, its horn now honking angrily, or so its driver would testify.
Doctor Flanagan sped up.  By the time the two cars left town on the Rogers Road, a narrow, curving, two-lane tarmac, both drivers had their throttle pedals to the floorboard.

    Three miles out of town, a service station stood on the right roadside, its lights out.  Here, according to the prosecution, the following car pulled into the left lane, came abreast of Doctor Flanagan, and forced his car into the service station lot.  The following driver would testify that the doctor voluntarily pulled into the station. What happened next became a matter of dispute in the murder trial held in the courthouse beside the lone traffic light at Christiansburg, Virginia. This much was undisputed.  After the vehicles stopped in the service station lot, multiple shots were fired by both drivers.  Doctor Flanagan fired a Colt .45 service automatic pistol and with it put a round in the gut of Mr. Higgins, driver of the pursuing car and a gasoline distributor by trade.  Mister Higgins fired a .22 automatic pistol and with it put two rounds in Doctor Flanagan’s face, to deadly effect.  Higgins survived his wound, but for a time that was doubtful.

    The prosecutor would be Julius Goodman, for many terms Montgomery County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney.  Circuit Judge Jordan of Radford presided.   Defending Higgins was T. Warren Messick of Roanoke, by then a legend for murder defense across Western Virginia.  A small man with a face not unlike Peter Lorrie’s, his nickname was “Squeak,” after his high-pitched voice.
As a second year law student, I had a seat at the prosecutor’s table.  My father, a lawyer in Christiansburg who had died in 1954, had been a friend of Julius Goodman, and Mr. Goodman was only too happy to have an unpaid research assistant to help him prepare for the trial.  I knew well all the persons involved in the tragedy, had often been a guest in the Higgins home (a high school girlfriend lived next door).  Doctor Flanagan was my family’s physician.  He’d come to Christiansburg to practice after naval service in the war.  He’d come to our farm a few falls before his death with two gorgeous white and tan English setters and shot a limit from our three coveys of quail while I watched in awe. They were the first pointing dogs I’d ever seen in action, and they awakened in me a passion for bird dogs that persists to this day, five decades after.
Higgins’ defense was that he’d only been trying to remove his young daughter from the scene of immoral conduct between Doctor Flanagan and Mrs. Higgins.  He claimed Flanagan had come out of his car with pistol blazing when he finally succeeded in persuading the doctor to stop.  The defense was self-defense, despite Higgins’ apparent aggression in following the Flanagan vehicle armed for mayhem.
No one saw the shootout save those in the two vehicles.  Higgins daughter did not testify, nor did his wife.
Messick put on witnesses from a house near the service station who testified about the sounds of gunshots, some very loud, some little pops, the loud ones first.  There was also inconclusive testimony from ballistics experts on the comparative sounds of fire from the two weapons, and the influence of muzzle direction on the apparent loudness to a hearer.

    On the final day of trial, Warren Messick stood before the jury.  He portrayed Higgins, a Marine combat veteran of the Pacific Theater, as a wronged husband trying to protect his young daughter from the despicable influence of his strayed wife and her lover, the lecherous doctor.  Higgins had testified that when he first drove up behind Flanagan’s vehicle, he could see his wife “sitting in his lap and kissing his ear.”   Seeing his daughter in the back seat of Flanagan’s car enraged him, but he’d only pulled his pistol from the glove compartment after Flanagan fired, he had testified.
The judge had earlier been receptive to Messick’s motions to dismiss counts of first and second degree murder for lack of sufficient evidence.  Only of manslaughter could the jurors find Higgins guilty when they finally got the case and their instructions on the fifth day of trial.
Julius Goodman did his best to paint Higgins to the jurors as the aggressor, having put his daughter in danger by his high speed pursuit and forcing the doctor off the road.  The faces of the jurors were impassive as he spoke.

    Messick started his final argument quietly then reached high pitched crescendo as he painted the doctor as a home wrecker and violator of the Hippocratic Oath, using his role as physician to enter Higgins home and seduce Mrs. Higgins, then heartlessly exposing Higgins’ young daughter to scenes of degradation. Tears appeared on Messick’s cheeks and then on the cheeks of the jurors.
 At this point Messick removed from his jacket pocket two cartridges, one large, one small.  The large was .45 caliber, the small .22.  He placed them side by side, bullets up, on the rail of the jury box.  Then he said, “This is from the doctor’s weapon (pointing to the .45 cartridge), a weapon made for killing.  This is from my client’s little pistol, made for target shooting.  Which is the weapon of an aggressor?  You know the answer.”
In less than an hour, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict.  It applied the ancient rural principle; a man who fools with another man’s wife is fair game for the cuckold.  (In some southern jurisdictions it’s known as the “He needed killing” defense.)

     Two years later, Warren Messick, dean of the capital defense bar of Western Virginia, veteran of dozens of murder trials, would die a suicide, ending his life with a weapon like his client’s.  He was sixty-two years old. I can still see those cartridges balanced on the jury box rail, and hear Squeak Messick’s sobs to the jury in Montgomery County’s Trial of the Century.