No eyewitnesses heard in civil rights slaying
by The Associated Press
Dec 11, 2008 | 3367 views |  0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — A district attorney's summary of igrand jury testimony shows the panel issued a murder indictment without hearing from any eyewitnesses to the shooting death of a black man by an Alabama state trooper during a 1965 civil rights protest that turned chaotic.

The Perry County grand jury indicted former trooper James Bonard Fowler in 2007, but his trial in the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson is on hold because of a prosecutor's appeal in the case. It is one of several deaths from the civl rights era that have been reopened in recent years.

Buried within more than 1,000 pages of court documents filed with the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in Montgomery is a once-sealed document written by District Attorney Michael Jackson. The one-page summary of grand jury witnesses and their testimony does not list anyone who saw Jimmie Lee Jackson when he was shot inside a Marion cafe on Feb. 18, 1965.

Other civil rights-era crimes have been revived in recent years and successfully prosecuted without eyewitnesses, but it could be significant in a case in which the trooper claims he fired in self-defense.

Fowler shot Jackson when a nighttime voting rights demonstration turned violent and some demonstrators ran inside the cafe. Jackson, no relation to the district attorney, died eight days later at a Selma hospital — a death that inspired historic voting rights marches in Selma the next month.

On the district attorney's now-public court document, there's a witness who saw Jackson run from the cafe after being shot. There are witnesses who were in Marion when the shooting occurred. And there's a nurse who talked to Jackson when he arrived at the Selma hospital. But there are no eyewitness to the shooting. The district attorney said that's not a problem.

"That's only the witnesses we used to get the indictment. There have been others who have come forth since then and other evidence. You don't put on your whole case for the grand jury," Michael Jackson said.

The prosecutor said he will have plenty of witnesses and photos to present whenever the case goes to trial, but he wouldn't talk about them. Defense attorney George Beck said the brief document shows it's a weak case.

"Trooper Fowler's name, description nor actions were even mentioned by the grand jury witnesses," he wrote in court papers.

Prosecuting civil rights-era cases is always difficult, but convictions have been obtained without eyewitnesses.

In 2001 and 2002, federal prosecutors obtained murder convictions against two ex-Klansman for a Birmingham church bombing in 1963 that killed four black girls. None of the witnesses saw the two men place the bomb.

Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted those cases, said Wednesday that eyewitnesses are not necessary to prove a case. In Jones' prosecutions, he had witnesses who said the defendants talked to them about what happened with the bombing, and he had conflicting statements the defendants gave investigators when the bombing occurred.

But he said the case in Marion may be more difficult to prosecute.

Fowler, who is white, has always maintained he shot Jimmie Lee Jackson in self-defense when Jackson hit him in the head with a soft drink bottle and tried to grab his gun. But after Michael Jackson became Perry County's first black district attorney in 2005, the prosecutor started a new investigation that resulted in Fowler's indictment.

Vera Booker, who was the night nursing supervisor at Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma in 1965, told The Associated Press in 2007 that when Jackson arrived at the hospital, he told her that he was shot by a state trooper while Jackson was trying to protect family members who were being beaten by troopers.
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