Defending Indy's Worst Mass Murderer
Nearly 25 years after he represented King Edward Bell — who killed his wife and four children — Duge Butler looks back at a career-defining case
Published in 2006 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on February 14, 2006
Updated on October 5, 2016
Everything that could go wrong in King Edward Bell’s life had gone wrong.
The 31-year-old Vietnam veteran had lost time on his job loading and unloading trucks and couldn’t pay his bills. His 26-year-old wife, the mother of his four children, had walked out on him after 11 years of marriage and was seeing a 51-year-old man with money to burn. Over the phone, she taunted her estranged husband about her boyfriend’s money and sexual prowess and even demanded that the man be allowed to take the kids to the state fair.
Although Bell had custody of the children pending finalization of the divorce, he had trouble getting babysitters, let alone paying them. He had trouble getting cash to prepare the children for school in a few weeks. He had trouble eating and sleeping.
Bell was a deeply religious man. On Sundays he took the children to Holy Angels Catholic Church. The frame for the license plate on his 10-year-old car showed folded hands inside a cross and, outlined in rich blue letters, the message “The family that prays together stays together.”
Now, however, even God seemed to have turned away. Bell had reached a point of desperation. That desperation fed rage and obsession.
In the midnight darkness of Friday, Aug. 21, 1981, in a modest pink frame and brick house on the edge of Indianapolis’ inner city, as his four children slept, Bell sat quietly going through family photo albums.
A large, shabby black scrapbook held dozens of snapshots of the family in better times — as toddlers, on vacations, with friends and relatives. The Christmas pictures showed gala trees and presents. There were lots of smiles, lots of love. There was youth and promise.
Then Bell did the unthinkable.
With two pistols and a shotgun at hand, Bell carried his 1-year-old son, Kingston Edmund Bell, into the basement and shot him four times in the head.
Next he took his 3-year-old daughter, Berkina Rochelle, into the basement and shot her twice in the head.
Then he took his 4-year-old daughter, Bertina Michelle, into the basement and shot her twice in the head.
Finally, he took his 6-year-old son and namesake into the basement and shot him three times in the head.
Above the bunk bed where the four dead children lay clad in blood-soaked T-shirts and underwear, he scrawled in chalk: “Jesus please take these kids.”
For several hours, Bell scribbled letters and notes. At different times, he went into the kitchen hallway and wrote on a blackboard. One part said, “Goodbye. This is the end of a true loving family.”
In a meandering suicide note, he wrote:
“I just came back from the basement. I thought I heard my loving children saying Dad-Dad, I’m cold, but they were dead, they died instantly. Tina died the fastest. Kingston, Boogie, Kina refused to die, so I reloaded the gun with shaking hands, telling them, please, don’t suffer. I will help you die faster … I keep hearing children in the basement saying Dad-Dad, come here, I’m cold, Dad-Dad. I’ve kissed them again and talk to them (their spirit lived, they’re in heaven) … The children’s voice is now getting louder down in the basement. They won’t want me up here, and them down there, for I know they’re just babies.”
Shortly after 5 a.m. Bell left the house and drove to a building where his estranged wife’s boyfriend, Clarence Barnett, lived. When the man came outside, Bell fired a volley of shots, critically wounding him. Then he drove to the house where his wife lived. When Bertha Bell came out in robe and tennis shoes, he shot her fatally. When her 54-year-old mother, Mary Alice Kirby, rushed out, he murdered her as well.
As the police arrived and surrounded the house, Bell ran out yelling, “Kill me! Kill me! Go ahead and kill me.”
Instead, King Edward Bell, whose six homicides made him Indianapolis’ worst mass murderer, was arrested. As Deputy Prosecutor David E. Cook viewed the children’s bullet-riddled bodies, he was appalled. “I know it was psychological, but it took me days to quit smelling blood. I’ll never forget. It’s almost as if it was yesterday.”
Four days after the murders, the state of Indiana decided to seek the death penalty.
Like everyone else, attorney Duge (pronounced Doug) Butler was sickened when he heard the news on the radio on the way to work. Of course you had to be crazy to kill your own children. Butler, 53 at the time, had eight kids of his own.
As one of Indianapolis’ top criminal attorneys, Butler had a busy practice. He didn’t give it a second thought when Criminal Judge Webster Brewer asked him to come over to the court. But the judge’s question surprised him. Would he represent Bell? Butler said he would talk to the man and then make a decision.
Defending a mass murderer is a tough and thankless assignment. But Butler was a good choice. He had strong contacts in the African-American community. He opposed capital punishment. And he was no stranger to murder. During his 26 years of practice, Butler had garnered more acquittals than convictions in homicide cases.
Butler prided himself on preparation, but he also was adept at understanding prosecutors, witnesses and juries. Once, in a 27-day murder trial, he’d charmed and distracted the jury by wearing 27 different suits. But his client was acquitted because Butler riddled the state’s evidence.
Butler had learned his craft from some of the city’s legendary lawyers. In his early days, he was co-counsel in a case in Ohio with attorney (later federal judge) S. Hugh Dillin. Dillin took the prosecutor out drinking and went to church with him the next day. “All of a sudden we had a deal for lesser charges,” Butler remembers, smiling.
Calling himself a “people person,” Butler says, “I’ve always had a great deal of empathy for people caught up in the justice system.” He also has represented career criminals — including one who obtained a state driver’s license under the name Kris Kringle. “He’s a skilled negotiator,” Cook says of Butler. “He has the respect of people in the legal profession, and he can get in where others can’t.”
Butler went to the county jail, where Bell was under suicide watch. They talked quietly about different things, never the murders. Though obviously tormented, Bell was not incoherent. “I suggested he start writing about his background,” says Butler.
The lawyer next went to the house where the children died. Like everyone else, the basement left him unsettled.
Butler agreed to defend Bell. It would be a question of sanity. Did he know the nature of the crime at the time he committed it? Did he need punishment, treatment or both? Butler knew Bell wanted to die. But he didn’t think it should happen in Indiana’s electric chair.
During the next few weeks, something extraordinary happened. Bell — who had been reading books such as Black Life and Culture in the United States, The Late Great Planet Earth and a religious booklet titled The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life — wrote obsessively about his life, covering 24 pages on a legal pad, and composed an essay about black-on-black crime.
Although Bell’s prose was awkward and jumpy, Butler was impressed and surprised; the ideas had some depth. In a rambling fashion, Bell had written about love and marital commitment, and also composed a series of prayers. His mind seemed like a box of ideas turned upside down.
One prayer said, “Pray with me for G.I.s of the Vietnam Era, that they recognize the agent orange herbicide and the other many wrongs that has happen [sic] to them while away from home, to not be as I was or became, a walking time bomb …”
Butler knew Agent Orange wouldn’t be a factor in assessing Bell’s mental state. Vietnam, however, might be.
From 1969 through ’71, Bell had served two tours in combat zones but not in combat. During the first, he had been sent to a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo because he had an overwhelming vision that the world was going to end.
In 1975, Bell sought treatment at a veterans hospital. He told the doctor he had pressure in the head “like a tight band.” The doctor wrote, “He sometimes feels that these pressures are reaching a point where he may lose control and hurt someone.”
While Butler prepared an insanity defense, he kept in mind that Indiana had enacted a new statute providing for a verdict of guilty but mentally ill, thereby presumably promising treatment as much as punishment.
Butler had his doubts — he thought Bell might be sent to prison and never receive any psychiatric attention.
The state had fired the full barrage of murder charges against Bell. Obviously, the man knew what he was doing when he murdered his family; he had documented his own evidence. No one would be sympathetic about the way he committed the crimes.
Despite such difficulties, Butler looked forward to the coming legal battle. “Criminal law,” he says, “is always a great challenge. You have to overcome with limited resources all of the might and majesty of the government.”
With a full-blown death penalty trial scheduled, Butler had his hands full. The prosecution had dozens of witnesses and a mountain of forensic evidence. Butler planned to counter with more than two dozen of his own witnesses, including Bell himself. Interviews and depositions consumed much of his time.
In January 1982, as potential jurors were being questioned, Bell had what seemed to be an epileptic seizure. That ended the proceeding. Judge Brewer ordered Bell to be examined to determine whether he could stand trial.
Three psychiatrists concluded he could. One commented that Bell “does not meet any mental disease diagnostic classification.” Trial was set for April.
Once again, the two sides marshaled their resources. But still there would be no trial. When Bell sat at the defense counsel’s table and began hyperventilating, both sides decided it was time to compromise.
“I always suspected it was a matter of time,” says Cook. “We began to view the case from a practical legal approach on a legitimate mental aspect. It was very apparent he loved those children. Most reasonable people think you must be crazy to kill your natural children. How are you going to overcome this presumption and get a death recommendation?”
Butler and Cook worked out the plea: guilty but mentally ill to six counts of murder. Bell was sentenced to 160 years in prison.
Butler had one last thing to do. He wrote a letter to each board member of the state Department of Corrections urging them to make sure Bell got psychiatric care.
The following year, King Edward Bell obtained two plastic bags, took them into his prison cell, and asphyxiated himself.
Last year, Butler prepared for semi-retirement. Although he planned to occasionally help his daughter, Jackie, an Indianapolis attorney, he gave up his own practice at age 77. He was one of several lawyers honored by the Indiana State Bar Association for a half-century of service.
Closing shop meant cleaning out old files. One was a huge cardboard box of the Bell case, now nearing its 25th anniversary. It was like opening a time capsule.
Inside, among stacks of legal documents, letters and police reports, were dozens of Bell’s family photos and personal mementos.
There were school letters honoring the children, a snapshot of the family standing before a Christmas tree and a handmade Father’s Day card Bertina made for her Dad two months before he shot her — the last testament of one of the state’s worst family tragedies.