At 88, retired Alabama Bureau of Investigation agent Harry Sims gets around with the help of a walker. He is frail, has a quiet voice and a cold, hard grasp of the facts of the past. He is described by an admirer in the legal profession as someone “who is too honest to be a policeman.”
As to the facts of the case of Willie Brewster, a man shot to death by nightriders on a lonely stretch of Alabama 202 more than four decades ago, Harry Sims is as detailed as the frayed onion-skin original report he holds out to a reporter with a shaky hand.
“We just had things going our way on that one,” he said. Other than the community getting behind the effort to raise the reward money, Sims said, “We had a good sheriff, a good prosecutor and a good judge.”
Still, he said, a number of people on the jury were afraid probably because they were intimidated. He also said several potential witnesses in the area would not cooperate with him.
Willie Brewster was black, and the men accused of killing him were white, and the case threatened to bring to a boil racial tensions that already were running high in the city.
Sims recalls a conversation with a man known as “Hot” Holmes, a sometimes-maker of moonshine, who lived near the site where Brewster was shot on Alabama 202.
“I asked him did he hear anything that night, know anything about the shooting,” said Sims. “And he says to me, ‘Sims, I don’t know nothing, and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.’”
Center-front in his recollection of the investigation and in the case file is Jimmie Glen Knight, a small-time criminal who eventually gave a statement to Sims that led to the arrest of three men charged with the killing.
Knight’s testimony was crucial, Sims said, but he also argues that a reward of more than $20,000 put up by local business and civic leaders in Anniston was the key to making the case.
“That reward money was 100 percent of the reason Jimmie Glen came forward,” Sims said recently in his Jacksonville home. “Without his testimony, that case would still be unsolved today. That was really the only thing we had to go on.”
Knight died in 1999, but his wife Betty said though her husband did attend Klan rallies, including a series of white supremacist rallies in Anniston during the time Brewster was killed, he was not an ardent racist.
“Jimmie wasn’t really involved in any of that,” she said recently in a telephone interview. She said her husband was a life insurance salesman for years before he moved on to more nefarious activities.
“Now, he might have hauled a lot of whiskey and engaged in some petty crimes,” she said. “But he certainly wasn’t in any way involved in any violence, much less involved in any killing, nor was he a racist.”
But being in the midst of the segregationist elements in Calhoun County during the mid-1960s, she said, “was where all the excitement was gong on, and Jimmie wanted to be there, standing on the sidelines watching it all.”
Though it seems clear from the files and from numerous interviews, that Knight was motivated by the promise of the reward money, his statement to Sims says, “I have not been offered any reward or hope of reward to get me to make a statement to Investigator Sims.”
Knight was in the Calhoun County Jail during the time Sims and federal officials were investigating the case. Even though state officials were investigating and gathering evidence so state charges could be leveled, the file shows Knight first came forward to FBI agents offering to testify against Hubert Damon Strange and two others in return for having the charges against him dropped and collecting the reward.
He was not in the car, he told agents. He was drinking beer with his friend, Anniston resident, Bill Rozier, but he saw Strange and the others soon after the shooting. He told agents they had a double-barrel shotgun and two empty shells and that he drove with the men in his car to a spot on Alabama 202 where they “observed a Negro man lying on the side of the highway in front of an old Pontiac.”
In his statement to Sims, Knight also stated that as he drove toward the site, someone in the car said, “Damon put a ‘pumpkin ball’ in a nigger’s head.”
(A pumpkin ball was a term used to refer to a kind of buck shot.)
Knight added, “And Damon then said, ‘Yeah, I had to lean half way out the window to get a shot at him.’”
Sims said that after he was able to talk to Knight he felt confident the state could get a conviction in the case. But, he said, the community also got lucky because a number of things were running in favor of the prosecution.
At age 80, retired Judge Robert Parker can be found playing golf some days at Anniston’s Municipal Golf Course or spending time with his granddaughter on a leafy neighborhood in town.
When asked questions about the distant past, he is to the point, full of specifics and short on unnecessary descriptions about the trial he presided over in late 1965.
After a minute or two of pondering over questions sitting in his comfortable living room, he volunteered, “well, there was no doubt about that boy’s guilt,” referring to Hubert Damon Strange, the 25-year-old gas station attendant convicted of shooting Brewster. Then he added, “There is no question that the reward money played a big part. It made that boy testify, didn’t it,” he said, referring to Knight.
The courtroom, Parker said, was tense with a number of state troopers stationed inside and out, but the proceedings were orderly.
The national media covered the trial, including The New York Times’ Gene Roberts, who wrote in his story of Nov. 29, 1965, that “Mr. Strange sat impassively in the Calhoun County courthouse as prosecuting attorneys began trying to prove that he had killed Willie Brewster, 37, in an act of terrorism…”
Today, Judge Robert Parker says that case was clearly made.
“Clarence Williams [the local district attorney] did a good job, particularly on cross examination and the defense did not.”
Strange’s defense attorney was J.B. Stoner, the long-time chairman of the National States’ Rights Party, the political arm of the Ku Klux Klan, and someone who had represented a number of Klan and other white supremacist leaders during the civil rights movement. In 1980, Stoner, who died in 2005, was tried and convicted for bombing the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1958.
“J.B. Stoner wasn’t a good lawyer,” said Parker. “Oh, he used some rudiments of the law, but he didn’t do a very good job.”
Bill Rozier, Strange’s brother-in-law, who testified for the defense in the trial, agreed with Parker.
Reached recently at his home in Anniston, he maintained he did not want to be interviewed, though he ventured his opinion on the trial anyway.
“The lawyer for my brother-in-law got him convicted,” said Rozier referring to Stoner. “J.B. knew the law, but he had no presence in the courtroom, he couldn’t tell a story. He wasn’t persuasive.”
Parker also said he was certain the FBI did not want him to be the presiding judge in the case, although the file does not show any indication of that.
“The reason was pretty clear,” said Parker, “they thought I was a sympathizer because I had represented [local Klan leader] Kenneth Adams when I was a lawyer. I had done a lot of criminal law before I went on the bench.”
Parker said one case involved an assault charge against Adams for allegedly attacking a black couple on John Hardy Hill, an area west of Anniston near where Brewster was shot. Parker succeeded in gaining an acquittal for Adams.
Parker said that his biggest fear during the trial was that he might have to call a mistrial because of problems on the jury. If that happened, the retired judge said, the chances of bringing the case back to trial would be greatly diminished.
“The jury was afraid,” he said. “There was no question about that. One man was afraid to the point where we were really worried if he would be able to finish the case or not. But he did. That was my greatest fear; that we would have to start over.”