George and Joan, meanwhile, had decided to postpone their wedding. Their lawyers had become tied up with the complexities of the pre-nuptial agreement, and George didn’t want to proceed without it. And the Akins’ resistance was as steadfast as ever. The timing just didn’t feel right. When the Akins learned of the postponement, there was some relief. But over the next weeks, Ted checked in with Dahl’s attorney, Sam Winstead, to keep track of the status and progress of the pre-nuptial agreement. For the time being, they made no more moves toward guardianship.
That evening at dinner in his apartment, George told Joan that he had come to a decision; he was going to have to sever relations with his family.
The resistance of Gloria and Ted to Joan Renfro affected the rest of the family, including the children. Dahl’s relationship with his grandchildren became strained. On a sunny Sunday in April, Laurel Akin visited her grandfather’s apartment. Joan Renfro was there, working in the kitchen. Laurel engaged Mrs. Renfro in conversation; it was the first time they’d met. She began asking Mrs. Renfro questions, simple questions: Where do you live? Where are you from? How many children do you have? Joan Renfro finally responded with surprise that Laurel didn’t know more about her already. Laurel took offense at the tone of the remark and launched into an accusatory challenge, charging Mrs. Renfro with victimizing her grandfather, of “brainwashing a feeble old man.” “I can see the dollar signs in your eyes,” Laurel said. “Oh, Mrs. Renfro, you certainly are some actress. This is just like a soap opera.” Laurel left; she was in tears. Joan Renfro was shattered. George Dahl was furious.
On a Monday evening, April 24, Joan and George sat down to dinner together at his apartment. George told Joan that he had come to a decision; he was going to have to sever relations with his family. “George,” said Joan, “it really isn’t necessary, and it doesn’t matter. Because I’ve come here tonight to tell you goodbye, anyway.” After dinner, Joan laid her engagement ring on his desk and left. It was then that George Dahl sat down and wrote his late night letter to the Akins: “I speak to you for the last time…”
The probate process that landed George Dahl in his hospital bed is a curious one. There are those who say the process, as established by the Texas Probate Code, may in fact be unconstitutional, that there is much potential in it for the abuse of an individual’s rights. From a layman’s point of view the process appears too easy, too swift, too arbitrary. A George Dahl or, in fact, anyone can suddenly find himself confined to a mental ward without the right of warning, without adequate provision for his defense. The subject of a guardianship proceeding or of a mental illness inquiry has fewer rights than an accused felon.
The day after George Dahl read the Akins his scathing letter, Gloria, terribly disturbed by her father’s words, engaged a second hearing with Judge Jackson to secure an order for temporary guardianship. In the probate procedure, such a guardianship application is presented ex parte, meaning that only one side, the applicant, is present. The individual in question thus has no chance to speak in his own behalf. The judge alone makes the decision; it is an awesome burden of judicial power. It is estimated that some 65 percent of such applications result in a grant of temporary guardianship, often simply “as a matter of caution.”
At the same time, Gloria Akin took her case to Mental Illness Court. In Dallas County, the Mental Illness Court is administered by the two probate judges, Jackson and Ashmore. Anyone can file an affidavit with the Mental Illness Court stating that a person is dangerous to himself and needs to be immediately restrained. If approved, again solely by the judge, a warrant for arrest can be issued. The person is apprehended and taken to the hospital for examination. The only requirement is that a physician examine the patient within 24 hours to determine whether to hold or release him. If certified as mentally ill, the patient can be held. A Protective Custody Order is then issued by the Court to retain the patient in the hospital for not more than 14 days. The Court then appoints a lawyer to advise the patient of his rights.
When Gloria Akin walked out of the courtroom that day, she had set the wheels of probate justice turning. Less than 24 hours later, the sheriff’s deputies were at George Dahl’s door, warrant in hand.
While Dahl was incarcerated, Gloria obtained a court order to enter his apartment. When the apartment manager refused to let Gloria and Ted into the apartment, they hired a locksmith. They searched through briefcases to gather papers, business records, for evaluation; they also took a copy of his will. The examining psychiatrists, meanwhile, were compiling their own findings, preparing for testimony if required. They had determined that Dahl was afflicted with arteriosclerosis — hardening of the arteries — and that there were resultant indications of atrophy of the brain, loss of brain cells, signs of “senile dementia.” According to the psychiatrists, Dahl showed erratic behavior while he was incarcerated; he appeared emotionally distressed; he exhibited “looseness of association”; his speech was slurred; he had memory lapses; he had mobility problems and occasionally stumbled. They were prepared to testify, if necessary, that George Dahl was a man of unsound mind.
Ted and Gloria hoped that there would be no testimony. It was possible, maybe even likely, that Dahl and his attorneys, upon reviewing the medical evidence, would choose not to contest the guardianship; that George Dahl would, at last, allow the trust to be put in care of the First National Bank and himself in care of Gloria Akin. Then the unhappy affair would be over and done with.
They hadn’t reckoned with the determined spirit of George Dahl. With his attorneys, he chose to fight, to put his sanity to the test of a jury. The private agony of a family would now go public.
On May 30, 1978, as the trial of George Leighton Dahl was called to order, Probate Courtroom No. 2 was full of tension, of a vague sense of gloom and the apprehension of impending ugliness.
Long before the trial, attorneys for both Gloria Akin and George Dahl had recognized that this would be an emotional tug-of-war; the facts of the case, such as they were, would be duly weighed, but the sympathies of the jury could decide the case. The jury might respond to the loving but exasperated daughter, saving her father from his own destruction. Or they might respond to the old man, fighting to save his dignity from the ingratitude of his once-beloved family.
Each side knew that a talented trial lawyer could be crucial to the winning of those sympathies. The Akin side brought in Bob Vial. Vial is a distinctive character, his sanguine complexion set off by a shock of longish, ultra-white hair; his presence is clever, easy, and charming. The Dahl side engaged the services of Louis Bickel. Bickel’s large build is vaguely athletic, his close-cropped graying hair is vaguely military, and his rimless glasses vaguely scholarly; his presence is domineering but attractive.
The two lawyers were well-matched. With Judge David Jackson — young, animated, intense, and a careful judicial scholar — the legal stage was set.
A long wooden table stretched across the front of the courtroom. As they faced the judge’s bench, Gloria Akin and her attorneys took their places at the left half of the table; George Dahl and his attorneys occupied the right half, closest to the jury box. Throughout the trial, George Dahl would sit under the close scrutiny of the jury. He sat stoically; his usually lively blue eyes, behind thick glasses, stared always straight ahead, betraying no emotion. Gloria many times would turn and look at him, as if hoping to engage his eyes; not once did he return her gaze.
The jury was a panel of six: all males, five white, one black, relatively young. From the beginning, they were highly attentive.
The charge to the jury read simply, “Do you find from a preponderance of the evidence that George Leighton Dahl is of unsound mind? Answer: He is or he is not.” With the charge was submitted a definition of unsound mind, taken directly from the Texas Probate Code: “Persons of unsound mind are persons non compos mentis, idiots, lunatics, insane persons, and other persons who are mentally incompetent to care for themselves or to manage their property and financial affairs.”
The Akin case would be directed at the notion of incompetence; they would seek to prove George Dahl incompetent to care for himself or his property. In such a case, the burden of proof technically rests with the appellant, the Akins; for the appellee, George Dahl, the tenet of “innocent until proven guilty” holds true. But in a guardianship trial, that burden tends to become twisted. Because George Dahl had already been placed under temporary guardianship by ruling of a judge (in this case the judge who was presiding over the trial), and because he had already been placed under mental evaluation by ruling of a judge, he needed to demonstrate that he was not incompetent. Much of the pre-trial discussion revolved around Bickel’s efforts to see that the earlier probate rulings would not reach the jury. But character witnesses would likely be needed in force to vouch for Dahl’s competency and the soundness of his mind.
When the trial began, there were only a few observers in the five rows of benches at the rear of the courtroom. Each successive day of the nine-day trial there were more. Always there were several lawyers in attendance with both sides, because of the large body of evidence, the number of witnesses, and the number of depositions to be read into evidence. It was more activity than Court No. 2 had seen in a long time.
The Akin case was presented first. The first significant testimony was that of Dr. Harvill. The testimony served basically to establish Mr. Dahl’s medical history, stressing a few incongruities, such as evidence that he often did not take all his pills as prescribed. But the most telling moment happened almost by accident. After enumerating Dahl’s physical disabilities, Vial elicited an opinion from the doctor: “Could you say, from a physical standpoint … he should have somebody looking after him or attending him on a daily basis?” Dr. Harvill answered: “I know of nothing that would make me have to say yes to that. I would say basically, no.” That response by Dahl’s personal physician had to be scored in Dahl’s favor.
Early in the trial, Adrienne Akin, Dahl’s 14-year-old granddaughter, was called to the witness stand to testify about an incident at the family table on Easter Sunday 1977. Adrienne had always wanted a horse and began asking her grandfather why she couldn’t have one. They began to argue and then, Adrienne testified, her grandfather got up, grabbed her arm, and twisted it painfully behind her back. In the struggle, Dahl fell to the floor. Adrienne ran upstairs, upset. For some time, Dahl refused to talk to her.
A substantial part of the Akin case was built upon the testimony of the three psychiatrists who had examined Dahl in the hospital ward. All three, in response to Vial’s pointed question, testified that, in their opinion, George Dahl was of unsound mind.
The cumulative effect of their testimony was potentially devastating. Lou Bickel, in cross examination, did not even broach the subject of the pure medical testimony, the brain atrophy indicated by the electroencephalogram. Instead, he attacked the testimony which applied to Dahl’s actual behavior suggested as the result of atrophy. He extracted admis-sions that, first, Dahl’s behavior at the time of the examinations in the hospital could be partly due to the stress of his involuntary incarceration. He also had the doctors confirm that much of their analysis of the behavior of Mr. Dahl was based on the history given them by the Akins prior to examination. He was also able to register, for the ear of the jury, another ringing statement: “During your examinations,” Bickel asked Dr. Thomas Woods, “did he [Dahl] do anything weird, strange, unusual, to lead you to the conclusion that he was of unsound mind? Did he do anything?” “No,” Dr. Woods replied.
As the trial neared its mid-point, Vial announced he was ready to tender from the deposition of George Dahl. The deposition had been taken a week before in Dahl’s office. Vial could have put Dahl on the witness stand but, at this point, chose not to. The reading of the deposition took hours. Its overall effect was difficult to measure. On one hand it illustrated Dahl’s feisty, even defiant spirit. He challenged Gloria: “I’m more competent than she will ever be.” He challenged Ted: “I think it [this lawsuit] is practically suicide for Ted and his political ambitions, but that’s his problem.” He even challenged his interrogator, Bob Vial: After a series of questions leading to his purchase of the engagement ring, Dahl said, “Why all this insinuation? Why not come out direct and ask me questions clearly?”
On the other hand, some of Dahl’s testimony, in its belligerence or its flippancy, could be construed by the jury as evidence of, at least, eccentricity. Vial and Dahl had this exchange:
Q: “What would you say would be the best hedge against inflation for a person to own?”
A: “To buy something.”
Q: “Well, would real estate be?”
A: “A bicycle.”
Q: “A bicycle?”
A: “Yeah, that’s one. Buy a bicycle.”
A: “Bicycles, plural. Say a thousand bicycles.”
Q: “That would be a good investment?”
A: “Well, I say it may be. Ten bicycles may be, a hundred thousand bicycles, anything you want. Neckties or whatever you want. We are reviewing all of these avenues now.”
At the minimum, though, the deposition indicated that the 84-year-old man was able to stand up under long hours of questioning. At the end of the deposition session, Vial said to Dahl, “You won’t get mad at me if I say I’m through?” Dahl replied, “I don’t believe it. You have got the reputation for being a tough guy. I don’t think you are.”
The reading of the Dahl deposition was followed by the reading of the deposition taken from Joan Renfro. For the most part it dealt with her divorce and the subsequent raising of her two children primarily by her ex-husband. It was an attempt to discredit Mrs. Renfro’s qualifications as a mother and implicitly her abilities to care for Mr. Dahl as his wife. The testimony was broached because the Akins were to claim that their aversion to Mrs. Renfro was based partly on her family history. However, her deposition proved mainly inconclusive in that regard. Vial chose not to put Mrs. Renfro on the stand, perhaps because her modest, motherly appearance was hardly the image of a golddigger. In fact, as a subpoenaed witness, Joan Renfro was not allowed in the courtroom until the end of the trial when all testimony had been taken.