James Bonard Fowler shot and killed Nathan Johnson Jr., 34, on May 8, 1966, at the Alabaster Police Station after Johnson attacked the trooper with a billy club, according to the report.
The incident is known to both the defense and the prosecution involved in Fowler’s upcoming trial in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was killed in Marion in 1965. Fowler first spoke of shooting Johnson in an interview with The Star in late 2004. But details in the file, obtained from the National Archives through the Freedom of Information Act, also reveal that Johnson had a history of mental illness, a lengthy arrest record, including a manslaughter conviction in the death of a teenager and was intoxicated when Fowler arrested him.
Parts of the file are at odds with previous statements Fowler has made to The Star, including the circumstances surrounding Johnson’s arrest.
It may be difficult for the prosecution to enter the contents of the file – the bulk of which are from the Alabama Department of Public Safety, but which also contain correspondence from the FBI and Department of Justice officials – into evidence, according to one expert on Alabama rules of evidence.
The file might be introduced, however, says Robert J. Goodwin, a law professor at Cumberland Law School in Birmingham, only if it is done in a way that is not an attempt to reflect on the trooper’s character.
“It’s a fine line,” Goodwin said, “but you just can’t use the evidence in another incident to show what kind of person [Fowler] was. The prosecutor must find some other reason to make it relevant. It could be used to show motive, perhaps, but not to show his character.”
Goodwin said that if the prosecution tries to enter the evidence, the defense will have the opportunity to argue against it.
“It’s a tough road,” said Goodwin, who is updating a book on Alabama rules of evidence. “But it has been done before.”
Goodwin referred to the 2001 federal trial and conviction of Thomas Blanton in Birmingham for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.
“The prosecution successfully used a number of instances in Blanton’s past,” Goodwin said, “incidents where Blanton referred to blacks in a derogatory way. The court ended up admitting that into evidence, but it was admitted to show motive.”
But Goodwin also pointed out that the file could also help the defense by bolstering the fact that the investigation at the time found that Fowler shot in self-defense.
Fowler has told The Star he shot Jimmie Lee Jackson in self-defense in the midst of a melee inside a Marion restaurant. The incident took place when a peaceful, night-time Civil Rights march turned violent.
Jackson’s death from the gunshot wound a few days later led Civil Rights Movement organizers to begin planning the Selma-to-Montgomery March, an event that helped lead to Congress’s passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Reached at his office in Selma, District Attorney Michael Jackson said he has not seen the investigative file on Johnson but was planning on trying to get details concerning the incident admitted as evidence.
“Yes, we know about that case, and we are certainly going to try to bring that up,” he said. “But whether or not it will be admitted, that’ll be up to the judge, of course.”
George Beck, Fowler’s Montgomery-based attorney, did not return calls over several days seeking comment.
The Alabaster shooting took place, according to Fowler’s statement, as Johnson was trying to make a phone call from the city police station after he had been arrested for drunk driving. He began arguing with the operator and then with Fowler, and when Johnson picked up a billy club that was lying nearby and began hitting Fowler with it, Fowler shot him three times in the chest, the trooper wrote in his statement.
Several statements besides Fowler’s are in the file, including that of Trooper Thomas J. Kennedy Jr. and those of several people who were at the police station when the shooting occurred. Fowler’s, however, is the only eyewitness account of the shooting.
While Fowler’s 1966 statement on the shooting is similar to what he said in his 2004 interview with The Star, his recollection of the arrest is different. In The Star interview, Fowler said Johnson had been in a fight with two state troopers and that when he arrived at the scene, “He had just about whipped both of them troopers. I handcuffed him and took him on to Alabaster and put him in jail.”
In the 1966 statements of Fowler and Kennedy, there is no mention of a fight.
Fowler details how he stopped Johnson for suspected drunk driving (his car was weaving) and how Johnson immediately started cursing at him. After he put him in his patrol car, Fowler writes, Johnson started verbally abusing Fowler and “punching me in the right side with his finger and said, ‘(Expletive), you going to get yours before this day is over.’”
Fowler said in the statement that he then “pulled off the road and told him to keep his hands to himself and not to start any trouble. I then pulled back on the road and drove toward Alabaster.”
In Fowler’s interview with The Star he states that he handcuffed Johnson, before he put him into the car.
Trooper Kennedy writes in his statement that when he stopped behind Fowler’s car after it had pulled off the road that “there appeared to be a scuffle taking place on the front seat of the car. I asked him on the radio what the trouble was. He told me everything was okay, after which I turned around and headed north.”
There seems no doubt that Johnson was intoxicated, but he also appears to have had a history of mental troubles.
A letter in the file from a state toxicologist says a sample of Johnson’s blood showed he had an “alcohol level of 0.34 percent,” an amount, the toxicologist wrote, “that would cause someone to appear to the layman to be ‘sloppy drunk’ if not ‘passed-out drunk.’”
Johnson, the files show, also was charged with manslaughter in 1955 after the car he was driving hit and killed a 14-year-old girl in Montgomery. He also was charged with driving while intoxicated in that case.
In 1958, a Jefferson County probate judge committed Johnson to the Bryce Insane Hospital in Mt. Vernon. His family had complained that he was a danger to himself and others, noting that he had threatened his sister. Johnson told his doctors at Bryce that he had occasional “episodes” that he believed were brought on by an injury he received in the Korean War.