It took more than four decades for a former Alabama state trooper to be indicted on charges that he gunned down a black demonstrator – a killing that helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Now a three-year delay for the trial has both sides fearing that elderly witnesses could die before they get a chance to testify.
The lag since the indictment, due in part to a feud between the prosecutor and judge, is on track to be the longest for a major civil rights case since authorities in the 1970s began reopening investigations of the slayings of activists from the previous decade.
No trial date has been set for James Bonard Fowler on charges he killed Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965 during the chaotic aftermath of a nighttime civil rights march in Marion. A grand jury indicted Fowler on murder charges May 9, 2007.
Jackson’s daughter wonders if she’ll ever be able to fill the gaps about what happened to her father when she was 4 years old.
“There is a void in my life I want to fill,” said Cordelia Herd Billingsley of Marion.
The 76-year-old former trooper, meanwhile, said the case has left him broke, in declining health and uncertain about his future.
“Every day I think they want to keep it open to wear me down until I die,” Fowler said in a recent interview.
The case has been delayed by factors ranging from an appeal of a judge’s order to the sparse court schedule in rural Perry County, which only holds court a few weeks each year.
In the appeal, the prosecution challenged an order that they give the defense a list of potential witnesses and their expected testimony. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled the judge went too far.
Other motions yet to be resolved include one by the prosecution saying the judge, who is white, has become Fowler’s “guardian angel” and should turn the case over to a new judge.
The defense also is waiting for a ruling on its claim that a fair trial is impossible in Marion, where historic markers memorialize Jackson as a martyr and a play about him extended its run last year because it drew such large audiences.
District Attorney Michael Jackson, who’s not related to the victim, said the judge must rule on the recusal request before anything can happen. “I’m cautiously optimistic that in the next few months there will be a court date set,” he said.
That may be too optimistic. Some of Alabama’s top Democrats have recommended that President Barack Obama appoint Fowler’s lead attorney, George Beck, to the U.S. Attorney’s post in Montgomery. If that happens, Beck would withdraw from the case and Fowler would need a new lawyer.