Fowler still waiting on trial

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 10, 2008

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) &8212; A former state trooper has no trial date a year after being indicted for a fatal shooting in 1965 that became a catalyst for the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

The victim’s daughter is growing tired of not having answers about the death of her father.

And the 74-year-old defendant wonders about his future.

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“I’m just floating &8212; taking one day at a time,” James Bonard Fowler said.

A Perry County grand jury indicted Fowler on May 9, 2007, on first-degree and second-degree murder charges involving the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Jackson, a 26-year-old black man, was shot by the white trooper during a civil rights protest in the west Alabama town of Marion on Feb. 18, 1965. Jackson died eight days later at a Selma hospital.

Now, 43 years later, Fowler’s attorneys have asked Circuit Judge Tommy Jones to throw out the charges because of the passage of time and the death of defense witnesses.

They are also asking that if there is a trial, it should be held outside west Alabama, where historical markers honor Jackson as a martyr of the civil rights movement.

The judge has not yet ruled on the defense requests or set a trial date.

District Attorney Michael Jackson, no relation to the victim, said he hopes a trial can be held in the fall or winter.

Jimmie Lee Jackson’s daughter, Cordelia Herd Billingsley of Marion, has seen the possible trial date pushed from February to May and now to the fall or later. She said she’s eager to hear testimony in court about what happened to the father she lost when she was 4 years old.

“Why do they want to prolong it? It’s already been long enough,” she said.

The district attorney said he has no idea why a trial date has not been set.

But he and others point out that Perry County is a rural county that has to share prosecutors and judges with four other west Alabama counties. Unlike larger counties where the courts operate almost nonstop, Perry County holds trials only for a few weeks each year.

Because more than four decades have passed since the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, several of the possible trial witnesses now are elderly. But the district attorney said none of his potential witnesses has died or become seriously ill in the last year.

“Everybody is fine,” he said.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in Marion when street lights went out during a nighttime civil rights march and violence erupted. Civil rights museums in Alabama say Jackson was shot trying to stop state troopers from beating his grandfather and mother. Fowler maintains he shot in self-defense after Jackson hit him with a drink bottle and tried to grab his gun.

Jackson’s shooting prompted civil rights 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 led Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which allowed millions of Southern blacks to register to vote and ended all-white rule.

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.

Jackson said he decided to seek charges after finding new evidence. Fowler said the district attorney has not yet notified his lawyers of that evidence, which is a step necessary before having a trial.

Fowler, meanwhile, awaits developments at his small farm near Geneva in southeast Alabama and struggles to pay his legal bills.

“It’s broke me,” he said.