Former trooper accused of civil rights slaying goes to court

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 9, 2007

MARION (AP) &8212; An attorney for a former state trooper accused of pivotal slaying in the civil rights movement argued in court Thursday that his client can&8217;t get a fair trial because of the death of witnesses, the loss of records and the celebration of history.

In the first day of a two-day hearing, defense attorney George Beck presented witnesses in hopes of showing that 42 years is too long to wait to prosecute former trooper James Bonard Fowler, 74, for the 1965 shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Beck also tried to show that if there is a trial, it should be moved out of Marion, where historical markers memorialize Jackson and a highway in front of the Perry County Courthouse is named for him.

District Attorney Michael Jackson, no relation to the victim, said Fowler&8217;s attorney had failed to prove the necessary facts to get the charges thrown out.

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Jackson, the county&8217;s first black district attorney, reopened the case at the request of local citizens who said they wanted closure.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot on Feb. 18, 1965, when a voting rights march turned violent. Fowler, who entered a not guilty plea in court Thursday, maintains he shot Jackson in self defense when Jackson hit him with a drink bottle and tried to grab his pistol.

Memorials remember Jackson as a civil rights martyr who was shot trying to stop state troopers from hitting his mother and grandfather when marchers dashed into a cafe just off the courthouse square in Marion.

His death sparked the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march. The march, led by Martin Luther King Jr., prompted Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which allowed millions of Southern blacks to vote for the first time and ended the region&8217;s all white government.

Sgt. Johnny Tubbs, west Alabama supervisor for the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, testified Thursday that he began reviewing the Jackson case in February and had difficulty locating witnesses from 42 years ago, in part, because of deaths and couldn&8217;t find all of Jackson&8217;s medical records because the hospital where he was treated closed years ago.

The police chief of Marion and the sheriff of Perry County also testified they lacked records about Jackson.

An investigator hired for Fowler presented the court with photos of signs and monuments in west Alabama memorializing Jackson.

John Martin, executive director of the Perry County Chamber of Commerce, testified about the chamber&8217;s visitor&8217;s guide, which contains a map showing where Jackson was shot and buried. The brochure describes Jackson as &8220;a victim the civil rights struggle.&8221;

Jackson&8217;s attorney asked Martin, &8220;In your opinion can Trooper Fowler get a fair trial in Perry County?&8221;

The district attorney argued in court filings that the men accused of church bombings in Birmingham during the civil rights movement got fair trials in that Alabama city long after the crimes occurred, and a jury in Perry County can be as fair to Fowler.