Thelma Neff Beckwith, the widow of Byron De La Beckwith, has been awarded $175,000 in punitive damages by a Hamilton County Chancery Court jury.
The two-day trial and jury verdict also set aside a deed from Mrs. Beckwith to Judy Skiba, the defendant in the case.
Mrs. Beckwith was 92 years old at the time she signed a deed to property she owned on Wilson Avenue on Signal Mountain. The jury found that the deed was procured by "fraud and undue influence" on Mrs. Beckwith by Ms. Skiba.
Attorney Mitchell Byrd said Ms. Skiba had befriended Mrs. Beckwith after she (Ms. Skiba) was released from prison in Georgia. He said Ms. Skiba shared the "political views" of Mrs. Beckwith's late husband, who was convicted of the civil rights murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi. Mr. Beckwith died in prison in Mississippi in January 2001.
Attorney Byrd told the Chancery Court jury that the case was an "old story of racism, hatred, bitterness and greed" by Ms. Skiba. He urged the jury to "send a message to all those like Judy Skiba in our community and state that this abuse of trust and fraud toward the helpless, oppressed and elderly would not be tolerated in our community."
Attorney Byrd said, "It is the responsibility of a trial lawyer to use the system of jury trial for not only the cause of his client, but in proper circumstances to extend the principles of justice beyond the particular facts of the case. This punitive verdict should be viewed by those who abuse others, whether it be a spouse, a child or as in this case, a 92-year-old woman, that our community and legal system will not tolerate such abuses. They will be punished severely by both the criminal and the civil systems of law that we trial lawyers respect so much."
Mr. Byrd continued, "The jury system is still the best realm of protection for wrongs done to all our citizens. It must be protected and cherished as one of our greatest rights through history and into the future. This was not a 'run away' verdict. The 12 men and women who decided this case certainly rose to the occasion in patriotism, compassion, justice and fairness."