Marion residents speak out

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 13, 2007

Former trooper’s past explored: Another casualty revealed



Email newsletter signup

MARION &045; The former Alabama state trooper who admitted to shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965 had a checkered past that included violence against blacks and a former white supervisor, but also included military commendations for saving a black man in Vietnam.

James Bonard Fowler, now 73, turned himself in Thursday after being indicted on two counts of murder in connection with firing the shot that injured Jimmie Lee Jackson the night of Feb. 18, 1965. His legal team accompanied him in his return to Marion 42 years later.

Walking up the sidewalk to the courthouse, Fowler was met at the door by a relative of Jimmie Lee’s. Perry County Deputy Sgt. Carton Hogue, a cousin of the victim, and Chief Deputy Johnny McClenney cleared the cramped office of reporters and photographers as Fowler was processed.

Fowler’s attorney, George L. Beck, once prosecuted one of the most famous civil rights-era murder cases. Beck was a deputy to then attorney general Bill Baxley, and won a conviction in 1977 against Robert &8220;Dynamite Bob&8221; Chambliss for his part in the 1964 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four young girls were killed while preparing for Sunday school.

Beck faced the media on the top step of the Perry County Courthouse after accompanying Fowler to the sheriff’s office to surrender and post his $250,000 bond. Beck said he would make sure his client met all of his court appearances, and he was confident what happened that caused the death of Jimmie Lee was not Fowler’s fault.

District Attorney Michael Jackson sees things differently. He said he expects testimony to show Fowler intended to shoot the 26-year-old.

Beck said one of the first motions they may file, among others, will be for a change of venue. He said they would have to see if media coverage and pre-trial publicity would make it difficult for his client to have a fair trial.

Jackson and state prosecutors want the case tried in Perry County. &8220;We think the citizens of Perry County can be fair and objective,&8221; he said.

Fowler’s Past

Fowler said he’d spent much of his retirement working. &8220;I’ve been farming. I’m a farmer,&8221; Fowler said, making his way through reporters asking questions about everything including his shoes. Fowler stopped to show them. &8220;I think they’re Reeboks.&8221;

Beck talked with reporters briefly about his client’s past, which included being dismissed from the troopers for getting into a fight in September 1968 with his supervisor &045; a fight he said Fowler’s boss, T.B. Barden, started in the first place.

Fowler’s former boss told reporters recently the two reconciled after Fowler returned from the war, Barden said.

Beck, who admitted Thursday he is still learning about his client, said he did not know much about another shooting that took place in Alabaster in 1966, when Fowler shot and killed Nathan Johnson, Jr. of Ensley who was black, during the incident at the Alabaster city jail. Fowler said the man attempted to take his weapon &045; similar to what troopers reported happened in the case of Jimmie Lee inside Mack’s Caf the year before.

A Birmingham Post-Herald story from May 9, 1966, reported Johnson &8220;grabbed a billy club and hit Fowler in the shoulder and again in the forearm.&8221; Fowler tried unsuccessfully to wrest the club from Johnson, then pulled his gun and shot him twice in the chest.

Trooper Affidavits

Fowler, along with several other troopers, provided written statements to Maj. John W. Cloud following the shooting. The following is an unedited portion of Fowler’s account, from the affidavit given on what happened in Marion that night.

The Reaction

Civil Rights activist the Rev. James Orange was in the Perry County Jail the night protesters were beaten outside Zion United Methodist Church. They were attempting to surround the jail a block away to prevent Orange from being taken out and killed, after Albert Turner Sr. learned plans were to turn him over to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Fowler, who now lives in Geneva, said he had been dispatched from Montgomery and was told of &8220;rioters burning down Marion.&8221;

Affidavits written by Fowler and troopers who were there tell a different story of sworn statements taken by NAACP field officers following the incident.

Thaddeus Lapsley, 45, stood on the side of Nathan Harris’ Son clothing store watching Fowler as he got into his attorney’s vehicle leaving the courthouse. While Lapsley was only a baby at the time the incident occurred, he said he was well aware of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the historical significance of his death.

Valerie Hinton, 43, owns and operates Mia Bella’s, a new clothing boutique just across from the courthouse square. In the same block is Lottie’s restaurant, where black and white patrons eat lunch every day. Hinton said, &8220;Marion has come a long way.&8221;

Another casualty

Dorothy Jane Parker Heard, 69, was seven months pregnant with her fourth child the night the violence erupted outside Zion United Methodist. She said she was late, and was headed toward the church when she saw people running away.

Heard said Jimmie Lee Jackson &8220;wouldn’t hurt a flea.&8221;

&8220;I saw him lying on the ground. He was on his side, like this,&8221; she said, demonstrating with her right arm aloft, leaning to the left.&8221; I stopped. I was going to try to help the boy. Then I felt something touch me right here,&8221; pointing to her left side.

Heard said her child was stillborn, and after the baby was delivered her left leg was drawn up from nerve damage. &8220;Sometimes it gets pretty hard to even think about it,&8221; she said.