It was Sunday, October 1, 1989, and the morning paper had just arrived. Clad in my robe and slippers, my first cup of coffee in hand, I groggily made my way out the front door, across the sidewalk, and down the driveway. I stooped to pick up the paper.
Back inside, I poured another cup of Maxwell House and flipped through the headlines of the various sections of the Clarion-Ledger to see what I wanted to read first. Zsa Zsa Gabor had been convicted of slapping a cop in Los Angeles. Mississippi author Willie Morris had come out with another book, Good Old Boy and the Witch of Yazoo, and a storm was brewing over the federal response to Hurricane Hugo.
No storm brewing here in Jackson, Mississippi, though. Forecast for the day: mostly sunny with only a slight chance of rain and an expected high of seventy-seven degrees. The prediction appeared to be on the mark as I glanced out of the kitchen window. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and bright sunshine was gradually shooting over the eastern horizon. No storm brewing here.
I settled down on the couch and began my reading in earnest. "State Checked Possible Jurors in Evers Slaying," read the front-page headline. Jerry Mitchell, whose assignment included the courthouse beat, had written the article. His bright orange hair and matching necktie against a customary lime green shirt made him a somewhat conspicuous presence in the courtroom. My dealings with Jerry had been positive, and I had never minded discussing with him what I ethically could about any of my cases.
Although Jerry's normal beat included the trials and general goings-on around the courthouse, lately he had been following a tangent involving the 1960s racial strife in Mississippi. Since the movie Mississippi Burning had come out, everything penned by Jerry had racial overtones. Initially, his articles had dealt with, as had Mississippi Burning, the murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Next, a series of articles appeared on a defunct state agency called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, established in the 1950s. Its initial purpose was to perpetuate segregation in the state, and it evolved into a state-operated spy corps. When the commission shut down in the early 1970s, the Mississippi legislature ordered all of its records sealed until well into the next century. The ACLU and several individual plaintiffs, trying to have the records opened to the public, had taken their cause to federal court.
Jerry had apparently obtained some access to a portion of these records. His October 1, 1989, article claimed that agency documents revealed that the Sovereignty Commission had investigated prospective jurors in the second 1964 trial of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.
Both trials resulted in hung juries, and Beckwith was released following the second. The article I was reading implied that an investigator with the Sovereignty Commission had tampered with the jury, and even quoted one of my law school professors, Aaron Condon, as saying that jury tampering was possible.
As I read, questions went through my mind. According to the article, Andy Hopkins, the investigator involved, was dead, so even if his actions constituted jury tampering and the statute of limitations had not run, the culprit was certainly beyond the long arm of the law. Nevertheless, a seed of curiosity had been planted, and it caused me to reflect on the 1960s. I was not, however, thinking about the Beatles, bell-bottom pants, or Joe Namath. I was conjuring up other memories that had long since been shoved to the dark recesses of my brain. What did I remember about the racial strife in 1960s Mississippi, and in particular, what did I recall about Byron De La Beckwith's 1964 trials?
I thought back to my first visit to the University of Mississippi campus nestled in the small hamlet of Oxford. It was 1962 in the wake of James Meredith's forced admission to the Ole Miss Law School, and my mother had a cousin living on campus. Riots had broken out, the Kennedys had sent in federal troops to restore and maintain order, and we (my mother, little brother, and I) went along with my aunt to check on our cousin and her husband, who was also in law school. He is now a federal judge; James Meredith is a former aide to ultraconservative U.S. senator Jesse Helms; and the Ole Miss Law School, only a few years ago, mourned the death of its African-American dean, who suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting New Orleans. Things have, indeed, changed.
I was eight then, and my brother, Mike, was half that age. The campus didn't look like any school I had ever seen, not that I had seen many, if any, colleges. That place, however, looked more like the army-occupied towns that I had seen in television episodes of Combat than any school. It was a place of wonder for little boys. Pup tents stretched as far as the eye could see across the intramural fields (where the athletic dorm now stands), and a soldier stood at every door.
Lt. Gov. Paul Johnson would be elected Mississippi's next governor by a landslide for taking a stand at the campus's main entrance, refusing to allow Meredith and his federal entourage to enter. I went to a political rally with my parents at Poindexter Park during that gubernatorial campaign, sporting a button with Johnson's slogan: Stand Tall with Paul!
Also standing tall at Ole Miss was a great-uncle of mine, Buddie Newman, who was then a state legislator and would eventually become the Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, arguably the most powerful position in state government at the time.
Still, in later years, I discovered that a local judge actively involved with the state power structure was also at that campus entrance. Judge Russel Moore was of the "old school" in Mississippi politics. A staunch segregationist in the 1960s, as most white Mississippians then were, he, like my uncle Buddie, served as one of Gov. Ross Barnett's top advisers and supporters. Also like my uncle and many others, however, Russel later experienced a change of heart. I married his stepdaughter Dixie, named after the Ole Miss fight song.
I met Dixie during the summer of 1973. I had known since I was in the ninth grade that I wanted to be a lawyer and had planned my education since then around that ambition. When we met, Dixie and I were nineteen years old, an age when most of my friends had not yet decided what to do with their lives. As Dixie and I began dating, I soon realized that I had found someone who understood my goals. The man she called Dad was a circuit judge. She had heard the law discussed and had been around it most of her life.
To the dismay of both families, we married in November 1973. We were determined to make our own way in the world, and once that became apparent to Judge Moore and he realized that I was not looking for any handouts, our relationship softened and warmed.
Judge Moore and I practiced law together for a few years after he retired from the bench. He was a friend as well as a father-in-law. We often discussed politics and dissected points of law. Novel legal questions and arguments intrigued both of us.
As I read my newspaper that Sunday morning in October 1989, I had clear recollections of my early boyhood of 1962. One thing, though, of which I had little or no memory was the assassination of Medgar Evers the following year and the ensuing trials of Byron De La Beckwith.
I vaguely recalled friends of my parents' visiting in our home, or vice versa, and the subject of the trials being brought up. The jury was still out, and someone made the statement that, while Beckwith was guilty, the state couldn't prove it. He would probably not be convicted, and surely they (the jury) would not impose the death penalty even if he were by chance found guilty. That's all that I could remember.
Dixie wasn't at home. She was gone a lot since going to work for the Clarion-Ledger circulation department. Most mornings, it was up to me to rouse our three kids: Burt, ten, Claire, six, and Drew, four. I couldn't linger too long reading the paper. It was time to get them ready for church.
Hinds County is one of the few in Mississippi that has two county seats: Jackson and Raymond. Jackson, the capital and largest city in the state, is where our offices are housed and where we try the majority of our cases. Raymond, a small Civil War-era town, is situated in the rural area of the county.
Most crimes committed outside the Jackson metropolitan area are tried in the Raymond courthouse. It's a two-story structure, with massive white columns, built by slave labor and used as a hospital in the Civil War. That's where I was heading the next morning to help my boss, District Attorney Ed Peters, try the Trussell case.
A teacher at the local community college had been attacked in a school bathroom. She wasn't raped, but she had the ever-living hell beat out of her, and before the assailant was caught, he phoned her repeatedly and told her all that he would have liked to have done to her. By tracing these calls, the police had found him.
I played out our case in my mind as I drove. Ed would pick the jury, I would deliver the opening statement and put on our case, and then Ed would cross-examine the defense witnesses. We would split the closing argument. Such was the way we normally divided the labor in the cases that Ed and I tried together, and frankly, I thought we made a helluva team.
Ed had been district attorney for seventeen years. He is quick on his feet and shoots from the hip -- but with deadly accuracy. Tall and lanky, he is a formidable presence in the courtroom. His slow Southern drawl and pleasant manner have lured many defendants into his trap during cross-examination, only to realize their mistake too late. Ed's demeanor then becomes that of a predator -- lithe, quick, and lethal. This persona, combined with his prematurely gray hair, has earned him the nickname the Silver Fox.
It's hard to imagine Hinds County without Ed Peters as its DA. He has become a fixture on which everybody depends, but takes for granted.
Shortly after the courthouse renovation was completed and we moved in, someone called the office and inquired as to the identity of the two large statues atop the building. The secretary, without hesitation, correctly identified for the caller the one facing north as Moses, but instead of relating that the other one was Socrates, she said, "And we think the other one is Mr. Peters."
Conversely, I am more organized, methodical, and research-wise. Plus, with ten years of private practice under my belt as a defense attorney, I was able to predict many strategic moves of my adversaries. We complemented each other quite well and with good results. I had not lost a case in the two years I had been at the DA's office.
I neared the courthouse square, found a place to park, grabbed my file, and hustled inside. Jurors were making their way up the more-than-century-old stairs, which creaked with each step. I stuck my head in the court clerk's office first, where all of the court personnel gathered for coffee and gossip. Barbara Dunn, the clerk, was there, along with her deputy clerks, Patsy and Martha. Fortunately, Ed, Judge L. Breland Hilburn, the court reporter Kaye K. Kerr, and the two bailiffs, Steve Libenschek and Jeff Murray, were there, as well. Nobody had gone up to the courtroom yet. Nothing is more embarrassing than walking into a courtroom with the judge on the bench and jurors waiting.
While I don't remember all that we talked about as we waited for all of the jurors to report in, I know it was not the Beckwith case or Jerry Mitchell's article of the day before. We had a case to try and the day was spent on jury selection.
Tuesday morning, though, when I unfurled the morning paper, I noticed that Jerry had written another article about the Beckwith case. This time, it wasn't about a tangential issue like jury tampering. This one said that Myrlie Evers, widow of the slain civil rights leader, wanted the case reopened if the evidence was available.
During one of our breaks, I noticed the day's Clarion-Ledger folded on a table in Barbara's office. The article about Myrlie Evers was visible. I asked Ed what he thought about it, what our response was going to be, if we had one. He said that a request to reopen the case came up every so often and his response was always that there was no constitutional way, and any first-year law student knows it.
Ed's plan was simply to ignore it; once again, it would just go away. That made sense to me. After all, it had been twenty-six years, and our state supreme court had reversed cases for delays of only a few years. There was no reason to give a second thought to any attempt to launch a case in which we would immediately get shot out of the water on speedy-trial grounds. We finished Trussell's trial the next day -- with a conviction.
"It will just go away." Go away? What in life ever just goes away forever? Sooner or later, in the great circle of life, all things, good and evil, pleasures and irritants, resurface, like the proverbial bad penny, and leave their mark on those whom fate puts in the path. We may temporarily ignore the elements and forces in our world, to be sure, but ignore, for instance, a deep wound, and it will only fester.
In October 1989, I wasn't sure whether the Beckwith case was a bad penny or a festering wound, but it became evident to me that it was not just going to quietly evaporate.
Public reaction to Mitchell's articles was immediate and divisive. Monday, October 9, at the Hinds County Board of Supervisors' meeting, Supervisor Bennie Thompson (now a U.S. congressman) moved for the board to pass a resolution asking Mississippi attorney general Mike Moore and Ed Peters to reopen the Beckwith case. It failed when nobody seconded the motion.
George Smith, then the county's only other black supervisor in addition to Thompson, said the request, if it came, should come from Myrlie Evers. There was, of course, an article in the paper the next day detailing the motion and the vote, and in Wednesday's edition an editorial asked why the supervisors remained quiet when they should have gone on record for justice.
But, if there was no evidence, where would the justice be in reopening the case? If the law was clear that it could not be done, would there be justice in ignoring the law and reprosecuting the case anyway? It seemed to me that the Clarion-Ledger was saying, "Damn the Constitution, damn the law, damn the evidence or the lack thereof; we want this case reprosecuted and don't confuse us with the law and the evidence." For our reluctance to rush out and indict someone before getting any evidence, Ed and I were labeled by some as racists.
Conversely, I also received calls and letters from people on the opposite end of the spectrum, who hoped we were not considering reopening the case, no matter what the law was or what evidence we ever amassed. The decision to prosecute any case should be based upon the law and the evidence, but to this group, Beckwith's guilt was not the issue. I was repeatedly told, "We know he's guilty, everybody knows that; but that's not the point." As incredible as I found such statements, I decided to listen and learn. As misguided as it was, the feeling was there, and if I didn't find a way to deal with it, there was no hope of ever winning over a jury drawn from people with this attitude.
So, I would ask, "What is the point?" Without exception, I got one of four responses: "He's too old"; "The case is too old"; "It will cost the taxpayers too much money"; "It will open up an old wound."
I respect anyone's right to disagree with my position, but these people were downright nasty about it. Where was such virulence coming from? Our society had become a fully integrated one over the past twenty-five years. An observation of Tony Horwitz, in his Confederates in the Attic, equally applied to the paradox I was witnessing: "Blacks and whites mingled freely at schools, restaurants, and other public places. Yet for reasons no one fully understood, this intimacy had spawned a subterranean rage" within some.
The easy way out would have been to immediately convene a grand jury (just as some vocal blacks wanted) and honestly tell the panel, "We have nothing," whereupon a "no bill" would have been returned. That would've been the end of it (just as some vocal whites desired).
But I felt that Mississippi and I were being put to the test. We say that no man is above the law; but what if he is seventy years old? We claim that we value all human life; but what if the life is that of a civil rights activist in 1963 Mississippi? There is no statute of limitations for murder; but what if it's been a quarter century? In pursuing justice and maintaining freedom, how much taxpayer money is too much? Finally, if justice has never been finalized in such a despicable and immoral atrocity and pursuing it will open an old wound, is it not then a wound that needs to be reopened and cleansed, instead of continuing to fester over the years, spreading its poison to future generations?
The interest generated by the mere mention of reopening this case, and the intensity of that interest, pro or con, made it that much more interesting to me. What the hell did we have here? I had not seen nor heard of any other case that could so arouse people's passions, and with so little real information at their fingertips.
The only way for this to go anywhere, whether it be a file cabinet or a courtroom, was to take a genuine look at it, make a credible investigation, and report our findings to a grand jury for its decision.
The law and the evidence were immaterial to the extremists on both ends. But by reopening the case, just to the extent of seeing if it could be reprosecuted, and then letting that decision be made by a grand jury, even if there was no prosecution, we would have done our job and life would go on.
Over the next several weeks, I brought the subject up with Ed, and on Halloween, 1989, Jerry Mitchell had another article under his belt. This one announced that the DA had joined in the reopening of the case; but it was, at that time, only to see if any jury tampering had occurred. This is what I had asked for, so I was the assistant given the assignment. Be careful what you ask for because you may get it.
The negative calls before were nothing compared to those we received after that article came out.
What I couldn't understand then and cannot understand to this day is how anyone could say that Ed and I were doing this for political gain. Having anything to do with this case was the most politically hot, politically divisive thing anyone in our position could possibly do. It was a lose-lose situation from the very beginning politically; and we knew it.
"Bobby DeLaughter, have you lost your ever-loving mind?" Barbara Dunn asked in one of those sawmill whispers as I sat in her office and told her what I needed. As circuit clerk, Barbara maintains custody of all court minutes, files, and exhibits that are introduced into evidence in all of the trials.
I was investigating possible jury tampering in a trial twenty-five years earlier in a case I knew little or nothing about. I did not have the luxury of going in the file room of the DA's office and pulling out a neat, organized file bearing Beckwith's name. I would have settled for any file -- even one that was a jumbled mess. We had zilch.
Our files went back only as early as 1972, when Ed first took office as district attorney. I had telephoned Bill Waller to see if he had kept any of his files. Waller was the district attorney who prosecuted Beckwith in 1964. He was later elected governor of Mississippi and, in fact, as governor dissolved the state Sovereignty Commission. By 1989, he had reestablished his private practice of law in Jackson, with an office near the courthouse.
When I asked Waller about the file, he said that he felt certain that he had left all of his district attorney files to his successor in office, Jack Travis. Waller promised, though, that he would double-check with John Fox, Waller's assistant in 1964.
So, I had stopped in Barbara's office, which is located in the courthouse basement, on my way in to work that morning to see what minutes, files, and evidence her predecessors might have maintained.
Barbara agreed to help, but she wasn't sure that a predecessor in office hadn't destroyed the materials. State law, she explained, would have permitted it after ten years.
It was close to nine-thirty by the time I stepped into the lobby of the DA's office.
The courthouse had recently undergone a complete renovation. The fifth (and top) floor, where the DA's office is located, was once the old jail. In the years to come I would often wonder where Beckwith's cell was located when he was jailed here in 1963 awaiting trial.
Back in my office, I opened an envelope that Ed had left for me in my box. Attached to a typed letter, a note in Ed's handwriting said, "You may find this interesting. I received it a couple of years ago and just ignored it. Use it as you see fit."
The attached letter was dated October 7, 1987, and was on the printed letterhead of Byron De La Beckwith, complete with his phone number and address in Signal Mountain, Tennessee.
Beckwith had sent it to Ed two years earlier, expressing his gratitude for Ed's not reopening his case. Beckwith predicted the outcome of a third trial:
Surely a 3rd trial of me would turn Jackson, and indeed much of Hines [sic] County, into a huge "Roman Circus fiesta" filling the air and streets with the bitterness and blackness of beasts, topped off and stirred with a vast multitude of trash of the white variety, and every afore named [sic] participant among the multitudes of legal Leaders//??!! dragging their empty purses behind them like a passell [sic] of "pickers" going to 'de cotton patch to empty a vast veritable fortune of funds (4 'dey services) out of the pockets of the responsible, white, Christian tax paying public -- of them who like thee and me and our people for generations WHO BUILT THIS REPUBLIC.
Attempting, I guess, to find a silver lining in the otherwise dark cloud that another trial would create, Beckwith continued:
One good thing that could come of such a trial would be it could probably, like the flood of 1927 which we lived through in the Delta, unleash a delluge [sic] of white damnation that, in its pent up fury, is NOW of such strength that it would flood, drownd [sic] out and burry [sic] in the muck all but a remnant of the evil ones assaulting us -- and as before in all floods -- the white Christian remnant would then, as Omar Khyyam [sic] said -- "SHATTER THIS SORRY SCHEME OF THINGS ENTIRE THEN SHAPE IT NEARER TO (OUR) THE HEARTS DESIRE." As in WW-II., I, as many others of us said -- "if we must have war -- then let it be in our life time [sic] that we be participants in the victory". and I'll add GOD'S WILL BE DONE. Amen.
This guy, I thought, is crazier than a shit-house rat. I was repulsed at his attempt at levity:
To ad [sic] a humurous [sic] note to all of this, may I observe, me being a Native Son of California -- then at the death of my father in 1925, mother and I moving back to Miss where I was raised on her/the family cotton plantation -- California got rid of a dear little white child, and lo -- in 1965 California fell "heir" to a drove of darkies from Mississippi as the Evers' ooozzzed into the Los Angeles area!!! WITH AN AVALANCHE OF DIXIE DARKIES AND ALL THE OTHER "STUFF" UNLOADING IN LOS ANGELES -- 'TIS NO WOUNDER [sic] THAT THE EARTH SHIVERS AND SHAKES AT THE REVULTION [sic] OF THE INFLUX! God's will be done. Amen.
Although this letter was no evidence that its author murdered anyone, it didn't exactly endear him to me. Nor did it strike me as being penned by some harmless old man, once a racist along with most other Southerners in the 1960s but mellowed over the years. I came from a segregationist background, but I had never heard nor read anything like this letter in my life. The person who wrote this letter was certainly perverse and brazen enough to try to tamper with a jury or have some of his friends do it.
I picked up the phone and called Chief of Detectives Don Bartlett. Maybe he could put his hands on the investigative report of the Evers assassination. Waller's file would be more beneficial, if it could be found. The police file, if it still existed, would start from the time the first officer arrived on the scene and progress through the entire investigation. Every tip called in, any lead that was followed (even the dead ends), would be included. Thus, the wheat would be lost among the chaff. Waller's file, on the other hand, would focus on the wheat, since he would have winnowed the valuable details from the worthless tittle-tattle.
As I hung up the phone, Clara Mayfield, our office manager, came in my office and sat down. She said that the county stored a lot of old files in a large warehouse that it leased from Hood Industries, a local furniture manufacturer. While looking for some other old files several years earlier, Clara had seen some boxes with Jack Travis's name on them. The DA file on Beckwith might be there, she explained, and volunteered to assist me in the search. But, we needed to get a key from Barbara Dunn.
Although she gives me a hard time, Clara is competent, intelligent, and, like Barbara, has a heart of gold. Both ladies always pull through in a clutch. As Clara was leaving my office, Barbara walked in and handed some papers to me.
The documents were copies from the minute books of the court, containing the names of the jurors in both 1964 trials. No addresses were listed. This was the first step in locating and interviewing the jurors to determine what, if any, contact was made with them by the Sovereignty Commission or other persons that would constitute jury tampering.
"Thanks, Barbara; I didn't expect anything this quickly."
"That, as you can see, came from the minutes. We still have the minute books in our office. It may take me a while, though, to find the court file itself," she said. "But if it can be found, I'll get it."
I thanked her again and then asked her about going to the Hood Industries warehouse. She agreed and volunteered to send one of her deputy clerks, Henry Brinston, with us to lend a hand. She could not, however, spare Henry until Friday. It was Wednesday and I would just have to wait.
It was close to noon and I was famished. "Cynthia!" I hollered.
"Yes, I am starving!" Cynthia Hewes, in the office next door, knew exactly why I was calling her name. We had been acquaintances in law school, old courtroom foes when I was in private practice, and now we split prosecuting the crimes of violence.
Cynthia was also my best friend in the office. Smart, quick on her feet, and relentless once she sets her sights, she will tear your throat out in the courtroom. I should know. I ran up against that buzz saw too many times when I was on the opposite side of the fence. It was a lot more enjoyable sitting at the same counsel table and watching her lay into some other poor dolt.
Four or five of us in the office usually went to lunch together. R. D. "Doc" Thaggard, the investigator assigned to Cynthia and me, was one of them. He is the quietest, least hurried, yet most efficient person that I know. A man of few words, Doc speaks infrequently and without much emotion, but when he talks, he says something. Even though he has an exasperating job keeping up with witnesses, many of whom are transients, and he works under the hectic pressure of the cases flooding our office, I have only seen Doc lose his cool once or twice.
Nobody can find witnesses like Doc. It's uncanny. Cynthia always said the only reason the authorities never found Jimmy Hoffa was that they never asked Doc to look for him.
Appearing at my door, Cynthia said, "How does CS's sound? Doc is going to meet us downstairs. He had to check on some subpoenas in the clerk's office."
"Sounds great. Let's go. Is Tommy going?" I was referring to Tommy Mayfield, Clara's husband.
Then I heard him in the lobby: "Y'all come on now. I ain't holding this elevator all day."
During the drive over to CS's, I pulled Beckwith's letter out of my coat pocket, and I let Tommy read it to everyone.
The Good Lord surely threw the mold away after creating "the little Mayfield boy," as former governor Ross Barnett called him. Short, bearded, feisty, and usually dressed in jeans, he looks more like Gabby Hayes than he does a lawyer, and he would consider that a compliment. He is a walking encyclopedia of law, capable of reciting obscure cases by book and page number, and the year they were decided, as well as by name.
After placing our orders and getting our glasses of iced tea, Doc looked at me and asked for the Beckwith jury list. "I figure you are going to ask me to find them and talk to them. Am I right?"
"You always are."
"Make me a copy when we get back to the office and I will get on it as I can. When do you need their statements?"
"The next grand jury meets next month. I would like to present them with something and get this behind us one way or the other. Start off with the jurors in the second trial. That's the trial Mitchell mentioned in his article about this tampering issue."
I could see Doc's face tighten up a little at the mere mention of Jerry Mitchell's name. Doc had nothing for reporters.
"And, Doc," I pressed on, "in addition to asking them about any contact by anyone, ask them about their feelings or opinions on the case back then, and what it would take to convict him today."
Cynthia leaned over the table and said, in a hushed tone but loud enough to be heard over nearby pinball machines, "It sounds to me like you are planning on going beyond jury tampering. Are you seriously thinking about reprosecuting the murder case, Bobby?"
"Just curious and thinking what-if."
"Shit fire, Bobby Joe [Tommy's nickname for me], if you ask me -- and I know you didn't, but I'm going to tell you anyway -- the old son of a bitch ought to be indicted for being so damn spiteful. Which reminds me, here's your letter back. You do know that son of a bitch is crazy, don't you? You do realize that?"
Tommy then gave us the whole scoop on how Bill Waller tried to get Beckwith examined involuntarily at the state hospital for the insane following his arrest in 1963. If Waller had been successful and Beckwith had been found incompetent to stand trial, Beckwith's commitment would have been indefinite and Waller would not have had to bother with a trial. Beckwith's lawyers resisted and the issue was decided in his favor by the Mississippi Supreme Court. Waller thus had his back against the wall and was forced to trial.
When we got back to the office, I made a copy of the jury lists for Doc and stuck my copy in a manila file folder. With that, the first file of the reprosecution of Byron De La Beckwith was opened.
Around two-fifteen Barbara walked in and laid a court file on my desk. I picked it up and read the cover: "State of Mississippi v. Byron De La Beckwith, No. 17,824."
"Barbara, this is great. I didn't expect you to find it this soon, if it could be found at all."
"I know how after -- what is it, twenty-five years? -- you are in such a hurry." The sarcasm was biting.
"Barbara, I'm just doing my job. If we just go through the motions on this thing and announce that there is nothing to it, it will be worse than if we did nothing. I'm going to do my job, conduct as genuine and as thorough an investigation as I can, present it to a grand jury, and let the chips fall where they may. I want this behind us as much as anybody."
"And anything that I can do to speed up the process, you let me know. I smell trouble for all of us on this, Bobby DeLaughter, do you hear me?"
"Yes, ma'am. Can I read my file now?"
"Don't you lose that file," she ordered, and with that she was gone.
Court files usually don't contain any evidence, transcripts, or anything that reflects what the witnesses know. That information comes from the police report and the district attorney's file -- neither of which I yet had. Court files contain papers that are filed with the court, such as the indictment, which sets forth the charge brought against the defendant; any motions that are filed by either side and the orders setting out the judge's rulings on them; the jury instructions, by which the judge tells the jury the legal principles to apply to the facts or evidence in the trial; and the subpoenas issued for witnesses.
Reviewing this court file would, I hoped, shed some light on the legal issues that arose in the case. Also, the subpoenas, while not telling me how a witness fit into the puzzle, would nevertheless produce some names and possibly addresses. Sure, I knew there were probably witnesses who may not have been subpoenaed but nevertheless testified, and that the addresses were old, but it was a start.
I opened the file. It had that musty smell that usually emanates from old books and papers. It hit me that I truly was stepping back in time. I had expected this in a theoretical or logical sense, but I didn't expect it through my sense of smell. Yet, there it was.
John Fox, Bill Waller's ADA, had requested a subpoena seeking three different court files from the chancery court of Leflore County, in Greenwood, Mississippi, Beckwith's hometown. Each file appeared to be for divorce proceedings between Beckwith and his first wife, Mary Louise Williams Beckwith. Fox, in requesting these files, represented to the court that they "bear materially upon the reputation of the defendant for peace and violence in the community in which he lives."
So, he's not only a back-shooting bushwhacker, I thought, allegations of domestic abuse, too? What a sweetheart.
Hardy Lott, one of Beckwith's lawyers, had requested access to "all tapes or recordings of telephone calls directed to Television Station WLBT immediately after the appearance of Medgar Evers on May 10, 1963," claiming only that they were "essential to the defense and contain evidence material on the issues." Lott did not say how they were material or why they were essential, and the court, Judge Leon Hendrick, obviously disagreed, as he denied the request.
Next in the file was another request by Fox: for Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Company to produce records that "will show that the deceased, Medgar Evers' telephone number was unlisted and that the whereabouts of his residence could not be obtained by examination of the telephone book, but rather that inquiry would be necessary." I wondered how that would be material.
Waller had filed a request seeking, from the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper, "letters to the editor published or unpublished of the years 1957 through 1963 to said newspaper from Byron De La Beckwith." Their purpose, Waller represented, was "to establish motive." After reading Beckwith's 1987 letter to Ed, I could only imagine what he was writing to the newspaper from 1957 to 1963. I wanted to see those myself.
Waller's next request was for a specific report from the Railway Express Agency in Greenwood. The report sought was "of paid COD Collections Form Number 94-S, and most specifically, Railway Express Receipt Number 05907 dated on or about February 6, 1959, and Record of Delivery Sheets Form Number 510, Sheet Number 0680, dated on or about February 17, 1959." The purpose, Waller said, was for "the establishment of the ownership of that certain .30-06 Enfield rifle as the property of the Defendant." That had to be the murder weapon.
Next was a court order, issued by Judge Hendrick, for the seizure of a white, four-door 1962 Valiant sedan from Delta Liquid Plant Food, Inc. Jerry Mitchell's first article in October said witnesses placed Beckwith's car at the scene the night of the murder. This Valiant was probably it. I had read or heard that Beckwith was a fertilizer salesman in the Delta. Boy, that seemed appropriate.
Jerry's article also mentioned that Beckwith's fingerprints were found on the murder weapon. Such seemed to be the case, as I read a motion filed by Hardy Lott asking the court to make those prints available to the defense and any fingerprint expert hired by the defense. It's a routine request.
The most interesting thing in the file was a document filed by Waller titled, "Suggestion of Insanity and Motion of District Attorney for Mental Examination of Defendant."
The sanity issue, as Tommy had told me during lunch, went all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court. Judge Hendrick, the Hinds County circuit judge who would preside over the trial in Jackson, agreed with Waller and signed an order committing Beckwith to the State Hospital at Whitfield to be examined.
The defense team did not, however, appeal Judge Hendrick's order. Instead, they waited until their client was physically transported from the Hinds County jail in Jackson (where he had been confined in a cell as any other prisoner) across the Pearl River and into Rankin County, where the State Hospital at Whitfield is located. Not coincidentally, it is also where Judge Hendrick had no jurisdiction.
Gov. Ross Barnett not only had a law partner on the defense team, but, according to an FBI report I later obtained, he also had a relative who was a circuit court judge in the district that included Rankin County. It was to that judge -- Judge Barnett -- that the governor's law partner and Beckwith's other duo of lawyers ran for help.
Judge Barnett, not surprisingly, sided with the defense and ordered that Beckwith be released from the state hospital. Normally, that would have meant returning him to the jail from whence he came, but that would have sent Beckwith back to Hinds County where he would have been treated as any other prisoner awaiting trial for murder.
So, Judge Barnett simply added to his order that Beckwith await his Hinds County trial not in the Hinds County jail, but rather in the Rankin County jail in Brandon, Mississippi, under the watchful jurisdiction of Judge Barnett. This ruling definitely had its perks. In stark contrast with his confinement in Jackson, Beckwith's "stay" (indeed it can hardly be called confinement) in Brandon had all of the amenities of home. Beckwith, in a letter to Hinds County sheriff J. R. Gilfoy, bragged that his cell door in Rankin County was rarely closed; he was provided a typewriter and enjoyed little restriction of visitors.
The Mississippi Supreme Court then issued a decision of which Solomon would have been proud, attempting to split the baby down the middle; it held that Beckwith could not be forced to undergo a mental examination, but he should await his trial in the Hinds County jail. He had to relinquish his television and typewriter and smoke one last Cuban stogie before leaving Rankin County.
Also of interest in the court file was a letter, dated January 24, 1964, and typed on the letterhead of Vickers, Incorporated, a division of Sperry Rand Corporation:
To Whom It May Concern: I would appreciate having Mr. Willard Smith excused from jury duty beginning January 27. Mr. Smith is currently performing functions at Vickers, which if absent from his work for any period of time (over one day), would cause a serious interruption of other people's work. Please use this note as an appeal to relieve Mr. Smith of any jury duty.
That kind of request by an employer to get an employee excused from jury duty is common. The stirring aspect of this letter, though, was the note of four simple words handwritten across it: "Mr. Smith is colored."
I'm surprised it said "Mr." That was part of our informal education in the South. No white should ever, I was taught, say "Mr." or "Mrs." in reference to a "nigra" (which was thought to be a genteel substitute for nigger and thus, in the minds of those who used it, should be appreciated by those to whom it referred).
I also learned that Beckwith's case was nol-prossed (dismissed without prejudice to the state) by the court, at Jack Travis's request, on March 10, 1969. My hopes were raised that he had possessed and reviewed Waller's file before making that request and that it would be in whatever boxes bearing his name that Clara had seen in the warehouse at Hood Industries.
The last item in the court file was the capias, or warrant, which is issued after a person is indicted. No indictment was in the file, though. I picked up the phone and called Barbara. She said it was possible that the indictments then were kept separate; she would ask Henry Brinston if he had any idea where it might be. Her office, however, did not have any of the evidence. Henry and she had thoroughly searched her vault, and it was just not there. I thanked her and hung up. Something on the capias caught my eye.
The deputy circuit clerk who had issued the capias was Robert E. Lilley. There was a Bob Lilley who was a county election commissioner. I flipped back through the subpoenas. Most of them as well were signed by Robert E. Lilley. If former deputy clerk Robert E. Lilley was election commissioner Bob Lilley, I thought he might be helpful in discovering what was done with all of the evidence. At least now, one of Barbara's deputy clerks is always on hand at the end of each day of a trial to take custody of the evidence. If that was part of Lilley's job in 1964, he might know something. I made a note to follow up on that hunch.
Barbara soon called back to say that Henry did not have a clue where the indictment was located, but he would be glad to go with Clara and me to the warehouse at Hood Industries, on Friday, to see if we could find Waller's file. Barbara had even checked with the State Department of Archives and History to see what, if any, records and evidence might be stored there -- nothing. It was a long shot, but the furniture warehouse was becoming our last hope in the search for evidence.
The time was nearing to go home. Chief of Detectives Bartlett called as I was leaving. The records division at the police department had found the investigative report, and he promised to have a copy on my desk first thing the next morning. I thanked him profusely and headed out.
I was exhausted by the time I crawled in bed. I thought that I would fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, but I didn't. I lay there looking up at the ceiling fan that I could not see but could hear steadily whirring. Even in cool weather, I have to sleep with a fan -- not so much for the breeze as for its unvarying resonance.
What would I find in the police report when morning came? Where would all of this lead? Would I come out of it with any kind of career in public office intact? These questions flooded my mind as I slowly drifted into a deep slumber to the soft hum of the ceiling fan.
Copyright © 2001 by Bobby DeLaughter
A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evars Case
Never Too Late
A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evars Case
This is the fascinating, real-life story of the assistant district attorney -- played by Alec Baldwin in Rob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi -- who brought closure to one of the darkest chapters of the civil rights movement.
When the district attorney's office in Jackson, Mississippi, decided to reopen the case, the obstacles in its way were overwhelming: missing court records; transcripts that were more than thirty years old; original evidence that had been lost; new testimony that had to be taken regarding long-ago events; and the perception throughout the state that a reprosecution was a futile endeavor. But step by painstaking step, DeLaughter and his team overcame the obstacles and built their case.
With taut prose that reads like a great detective thriller, Never Too Late is a page-turner of the very highest order. It charts the course of a country lawyer who, concerned about the collective soul of his community and the nature of American justice in general, dared to revisit a thirty-one-year-old case -- one so incendiary that everyone warned him not to touch it -- and win a long-overdue conviction. DeLaughter's success in this trial stands today as a landmark in the annals of criminal prosecution, and this bracing first-person account brings the saga to life as never before.