FBI agent questions image of civil rights martyr

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 10, 2007

MARION (AP) &8212; A former FBI agent tried in court Friday to discredit the image of Jimmie Lee Jackson as a martyr of the civil rights movement.

Former agent Colman Keane said Jackson admitted to him before dying that he tried to grab the pistol of a state trooper who shot him in 1965. Keane said it&8217;s wrong to try to prosecute former Trooper James Bonard Fowler 42 years later.

District Attorney Michael Jackson, no relation to the victim, discounted Keane&8217;s testimony about the shooting.

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Keane testified in the second and final day of a hearing for Fowler, who is trying to get murder charges against him dismissed. If that does not happen, he wants the trial moved out of Marion, where Jimmie Lee Jackson&8217;s death is memorialized by monuments and signs.

Circuit Judge Tommy Jones said he would rule later on those issues, as well as Beck&8217;s request to have the district attorney testify about why he decided to pursue a 42-year-old case.

A Perry County grand jury indicted Fowler in May on first-degree and second-degree murder charges for shooting Jackson during a civil rights protest in Marion on Feb. 18, 1965. Jackson died eight days later at a Selma hospital.

Fowler, 74, maintains he shot in self-defense after Jackson hit him with a drink bottle and tried to grab his gun.

Civil rights monuments and museums across Alabama portray Jackson as a martyr of the civil rights movement who died trying to stop state troopers from beating his mother and grandfather.

Defense attorney George Beck argued that the charges against Fowler should be thrown out because many of the witnesses who could back up Keane&8217;s version of events have died.

The district attorney said the death of several witnesses affects both sides.

Keane, who was an FBI agent based in Chattanooga, Tenn., said the FBI assigned him to Marion to watch a nighttime protest march. About 400 blacks gathered at the courthouse square to participate in or watch the march, and a group of whites watched from another spot on the square, he said.

Everything was peaceful until the street lights went out. Then black protesters started throwing bricks and bottles stockpiled behind a church on the square, Keane said. Whites spray painted news photographers&8217; cameras and hit an NBC reporter with an ax handle, he said.

Keane said some protesters ran into Mack&8217;s Cafe, located just off the square. Keane, who was outside the cafe, said he heard a shot inside the restaurant and saw Jackson run down the steps of the cafe before falling in the street. He said state troopers at the scene told him that &8220;the gentleman who ran down the stairs had been shot when he tried to get a gun from a trooper.&8221;

Keane said he went to visit Jackson a day or two later at a hospital in nearby Selma and told him &8220;he was in big trouble&8221; because he had been charged with assaulting a police officer.

He said Jackson admitted trying to grab the trooper&8217;s gun and said he was sorry.

Keane said that later that year, two grand juries &8212; one federal and one state &8212; reviewed the shooting and decided no charges were warranted.

Under cross-examination by the district attorney, Keane said he saw state troopers push protesters back with their batons, but never saw them act unprofessional. The prosecutor shook his head in disbelief and sat down.

Nancy Lasitter of Huntsville, who was married to the late Trooper Frank Higginbotham in 1965, testified her husband came home from the Marion protest in a bloody condition with a concussion and severe cut on his head.

Beck argued that the death of Higginbotham and other troopers who were with Fowler in the cafe will prevent him from getting a fair trial.

Michael Jackson, who&8217;s the county&8217;s first black district attorney, argued that he is not responsible for any delay in bringing the case to trial. Jackson said he began to review the shooting at the request of local residents shortly after he became district attorney in 2005, and he decided to pursue it after finding new information, which he did not describe.