Finding the truth

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 7, 2007

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series on the effect of the 1965 death of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Perry County. The civil rights-era case was re-opened and prosecutors plan to present new evidence to a grand jury Wednesday.

By Victor Inge

The Selma Times-Journal

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MARION – Robert Turner Sr. knows the spot Jimmie Lee Jackson fell after he was shot in 1965. He walks past it just about every day.

Turner was a college undergraduate and was away in school on Feb. 18, 1965, when his brother, the late Albert Turner Sr., led a protest that ended in a maddening scene of men, women and elderly reportedly beaten by Alabama State Troopers.

“He fell right there,” Turner pointed. “Right between the post office and the church.”

Turner is now an attorney in Marion in private practice. His son, Robert Turner Jr., has joined him in his practice.

For the past 42 years, the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee has gone unpunished. Albert Turner Jr., the son of the late Albert Turner Sr., said they asked the FBI Hate Crimes Division to assist the district attorney’s office in reopening the case.

Turner, who serves on the Perry County Commission, was named to fulfill the remainder of his late father’s term in 2000. In 2002, he won the seat by a 70 percent margin.

Turner said he heard stories of “how ruthless” factions fighting progress for blacks in Perry County had been.

He said his own home was burned in 2002.

His father had even told him of how the Rev. C.T. Vivian, the speaker at Zion Methodist Church during the mass meeting that fateful night, was concealed in the back of a hearse by the late Hampton Lee and Elija Rollins Sr., and smuggled out of town.

“Dr. King was supposed to speak and they got word there were plans to kill him, so Rev. Vivian spoke,” Turner said. “Then they wanted to kill him. State troopers actually stopped them. They told them they were taking a body to Selma, and they let them go.”

Albert Jr. said the Perry County Civic League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference asked the district attorney’s office to reopen the case.

James Bonard Fowler, 73, admitted to shooting Jimmie Lee, but said it was an accident.

Even though Fowler has expressed remorse, even he feels that is not enough.

District Attorney Michael Jackson said he wants to administer justice through bringing the case to trial and “finding out the truth” about what happened at Mack’s Caf that night.

First, prosecutors must get an indictment. Secondly, Fowler would have to be deemed fit to stand trial, legal experts say.

According to state law, a grand jury must consist of at least 13 and no more than 18 members.

There must be at least 12 affirmative votes to return a “true bill” or indictment. If the members of the grand jury do not feel there is sufficient evidence to indict, they may issue a “no bill,” which could mean more information is requested before reaching a decision, or they feel there is insufficient evidence to indict.

Another Marion attorney wonders if “dredging up the past” will do any good for the future. James Barnes Jr. said there’s the legal perspective and the societal standpoint.

“Living in the past is not necessarily the way to go,” Barnes said. “If it’s going to give the family some closure, then it’s a good thing. From a societal standpoint, we’re all trying to live together. People got mistreated, and it ain’t exactly like it ought to be.

“I don’t know what good is going to come from all this,” Barnes said. “Are we going to send this person to prison? What is the appropriate sentence?”

Perry County has a majority black population of about 65 percent, and Barnes said one of the challenges state prosecutors may face is jury selection.

What makeup of the jury do you want?” Barnes said. “You don’t want an all black jury. In my opinion you need six blacks and six whites, some male and female. But based on the demographics that’s going to be tough.”

Turner wondered about Fowler’s defense, which is headed by Montgomery attorney George L. Beck, who has said he didn’t feel any crime had been committed.

During interviews, Fowler was aware of what is about to take place.

However, attorneys won’t rule out the possibility Fowler may attempt to “appear incompetent.”

“That may be part of the defense,” Barnes said. “That’s just one possibility.”

Albert Jr. said he expects

an indictment and for one of the three judges presiding in the Fourth Judicial Circuit to hear the case. He said he expects Fowler to get jail time.

“He’s had 42 years of probation,” Albert Jr. said. “Jimmie Lee Jackson’s family has had to deal with the fact no one would go after this man. Not to diminish the deaths of the others during the civil rights movement, but Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death was the most significant event to bring about what happened in Selma, and what happened in Selma transformed this country.”