A simmering East Texas feud boiled over into bloodshed on Dec. 15, 1951, when Hunter Bergman shot his sister’s ex-husband to death on the main street of Corrigan.
Forty-three year old Dudley Veal heard someone call his name and turned to see who it was. His former brother-in-law fired once from a distance of ten feet, and the bullet tore through Veal’s chest killing him instantly.
Bergman, 55, calmly handed the smoking .32-caliber rifle to a dumbfounded deputy, climbed back in his truck and drove to Livingston, the Polk County seat, where he surrendered to authorities.
Forty-five days later on Jan. 29, 1952, the sensational murder trial with its infamous cast of characters began in the same town 75 miles north of Houston. The Bergmans and the Veals, two prominent pioneer families, sat stone-faced on opposite sides of the courtroom exchanging neither a word nor a glance.
As soon as District Attorney J.W. Simpson heard that Zemmie Foreman, brother of famed criminal attorney Percy, was in charge of the defense, he called in reinforcements. Two “big city” lawyers from Lufkin accepted his invitation to serve as special prosecutors.
The selection of the jury took nine tedious days. In the sparsely settled county of 16,000 it was hard to find qualified candidates not on speaking terms with the accused or the victim and who had not formed a hard-and-fast opinion about the case. When the twelfth juror finally took his seat, only 20 members of the original 160-man pool were left.
Zemmie Foreman made it clear from the outset that he would not dispute the most incriminating fact. There was no denying his client took Dudley Veal’s life, but the attorney claimed Hunter Bergman committed the act in self-defense. And, taking a page out of brother Percy’s playbook, Foreman intended to show the dead man had it coming.
The prosecution opened with its star witness, high school student Gwendyln Hudson who watched the whole thing from the furniture store where she worked part-time. The teenager testified she waved to Veal, as he exited the bank next door.
Then Hudson saw the defendant walking across the street carrying a rifle. “He was raising his gun,” she recounted for the jury and the 400 spectators that packed the courtroom. “Mr. Veal turned and started back. Just as he did, Mr. Bergman fired.”
The schoolgirl continued the narration describing how the mortally wounded Veal collapsed on the sidewalk in front of the furniture store and was dragged inside by her manager. Five minutes later, the local mortician pronounced Veal dead.
Responding to questions from the district attorney, Hudson said with certainty that the victim made no threatening move whatsoever toward his attacker. She added that the only weapon found on Veal’s body was a pocketknife with a four-inch blade.
Not wanting to spend anymore time on the open-and-shut case, the prosecution rested before lunch after calling just six witnesses.
The defense countered with Elna Veal, Hunter Bergman’s 44-year-old “baby sister,” who told a long and tearful tale of marital woe. She swore that her abusive ex-husband had threatened her life and the life of her protective brother “many times in the last 15 years.”
A second former brother-in-law repeated another alleged death threat from the witness stand. During a visit to the Veal home a year before the murder, he testified Dudley, while sitting in a chair toying with a pistol, announced, “I’m going to kill that (expletive deleted) Hunter Bergman!”
The jury heard from Bergman himself, who contended under oath that he fired the fatal shot because he believed Veal was reaching for a gun. He blamed his trigger-happiness on a botched bushwhacking the previous day by his estranged in-law but provided only a photo of a bullet hole in his pickup as proof of the ambush.
The most dramatic moment of the 29-day trial, longest in Texas history up until that time, came when Dudley Veal, Jr. contradicted his mother on every important point. On cross-examination one of his uncle’s lawyers shouted, “You got up on that stand and branded your mother a liar! She who gave birth to you and your sister! You should have more respect for her!”
Four hours into the six set aside by the judge for closing arguments, Zemmie Foreman pulled a fast one. He suddenly turned to the tired jurors and asked for a show-of-hands. If they felt they had heard enough, he would sit down and shut up.
All 12 raised their hands, and Foreman took his seat. Taken by surprise and afraid to antagonize the jury, the D.A. agreed to abide by the results of the unorthodox poll and forfeited his right to give the final summation.
The jury was home in time for dinner after deliberating only an hour and a half. The bailiff, whose nickname was Dynamite, read the two-word verdict: “Not guilty.”
As one side of the courtroom celebrated and the other wept, an elderly spectator had the last word. “Well,” she observed, “it will take a full generation and more of Bergmans and Veals to heal this breach!”
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