It took more than four decades for a former Alabama state trooper to be indicted on charges that he gunned down a black demonstrator — a killing that helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Now a three-year delay for the trial has both sides fearing that elderly witnesses could die before they get a chance to testify.
The lag since the indictment, due in part to a feud between the prosecutor and judge, is on track to be the longest for a major civil rights case since authorities in the 1970s began reopening investigations of the slayings of activists from the previous decade.
No trial date has been set for James Bonard Fowler on charges he killed Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965 during the chaotic aftermath of a nighttime civil rights march in Marion. A grand jury indicted Fowler on murder charges May 9, 2007. Jackson’s daughter wonders if she’ll ever be able to fill the gaps about what happened to her father when she was 4 years old.
“There is a void in my life I want to fill,” said Cordelia Herd Billingsley of Marion. The 76-year-old former trooper, meanwhile, said the case has left him broke, in declining health and uncertain about his future. “Every day I think they want to keep it open to wear me down until I die,” Fowler said in a recent interview.
The case has been delayed by factors ranging from an appeal of a judge’s order to the sparse court schedule in rural Perry County, which only holds court a few weeks each year.
In the appeal, the prosecution challenged an order that they give the defense a list of potential witnesses and their expected testimony. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled the judge went too far.
Other motions yet to be resolved include one by the prosecution saying the judge, who is white, has become Fowler’s “guardian angel” and should turn the case over to a new judge.
The defense also is waiting for a ruling on its claim that a fair trial is impossible in Marion, where historic markers memorialize Jackson as a martyr and a play about him extended its run last year because it drew such large audiences.
District Attorney Michael Jackson, who’s not related to the victim, said the judge must rule on the recusal request before anything can happen. “I’m cautiously optimistic that in the next few months there will be a court date set,” he said.
That may be too optimistic. Some of Alabama’s top Democrats have recommended that President Barack Obama appoint Fowler’s lead attorney, George Beck, to the U.S. Attorney’s post in Montgomery. If that happens, Beck would withdraw from the case and Fowler would need a new lawyer.
Any further delay threatens to thin the roster of witnesses. Two troopers with Fowler at the Marion demonstration died before the indictment, as did many of the demonstrators and the doctors who treated the victim. The witnesses who testified to the grand jury were all elderly, but all remain alive, according to the district attorney.
The biggest risk in civil rights-era cases is having witnesses die or suffer a medical problem that makes them unable to testify, said former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who prosecuted two former Ku Klux Klansmen indicted in May 2000 for a Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls in 1963.
“With every day that passes, there is the potential for problems for either side,” Jones said.
The church-bombing case was resolved much faster than Fowler’s: One defendant was convicted within a year of indictment and the other within two years. Still, Jones said four witnesses in his trials died within a few months of the convictions.
Fowler’s case is on track to exceed the most drawn-out civil rights cold case prosecution so far. Three years and two months elapsed between the indictment and 2004 conviction of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for the slaying of Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963.
Billingsley, the slain demonstrator’s daughter, was elated when Fowler was indicted. But now she’s amazed that months pass without anything happening in the case.
“It’s crazy. I can’t understand why it is taking so long,” she said.
Her father was shot in Marion when street lights went out and violence erupted after law enforcement officers tried to stop the march. Historians and the prosecutor say Jackson was trying to stop troopers from beating his grandfather and mother. Fowler maintains he shot in self-defense after Jackson hit him with a bottle and tried to grab his gun. The 26-year-old man died eight days later of an infection at a hospital.
Jackson’s shooting prompted activists to set out on a Selma-to-Montgomery march, which was turned back at Selma by club-wielding troopers and deputies in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
A later march, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., made it all the way to the Alabama Capitol and prompted Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That act allowed millions of Southern blacks to register to vote.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, who wrote three books about the civil rights movement, said Fowler’s trial is important not only for justice, but for history.
“Millions of people are voting today who might not be voting if not for that case,” he said.
A federal grand jury in Mobile reviewed the shooting shortly after it occurred and brought no charges. Michael Jackson reopened the investigation after he became Perry County’s first black district attorney in 2005. Until Fowler’s indictment, he was living a quiet life on a small farm near Geneva in southeast Alabama. In 1968, he was fired from the highway patrol for beating a supervisor. He became an Army Ranger and received Silver Stars for service in Vietnam.
Fowler said he has been forced to sell farmland to pay his legal bills — $50,000 up front and $1,000 a month — and is now broke.
“I feel like my rights have been violated. If I was black, it wouldn’t be like that, and everybody knows that,” he said.