- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

MONTGOMERY, Ala. | It took more than four decades to indict a former Alabama state trooper in a landmark civil rights slaying, and getting the elderly defendant to trial is taking years, too.

More than two years have passed since James Bonard Fowler was indicted in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was fatally shot during a 1965 civil rights protest in west Alabama. Mr. Fowler’s trial is nowhere near, because of feuding between the prosecutor and judge, who has taken the unusual step of hiring his own lawyer.

Civil rights advocates worry that delays could jeopardize the case because elderly witnesses could die before they get a chance to testify.

District Attorney Michael Jackson, who isn’t related to the victim, said the case definitely won’t be tried this year, but he’s hopeful for next year. He has no anticipated date.

Neither does defense attorney George Beck. But Mr. Beck points out that it’s the prosecution, not the defense, that is causing the delay.

Mr. Fowler, who is free on bond, was 73 when he was indicted. He turns 76 Thursday.

He is biding his time at his home in the Black community, in southeast Alabama. He said legal costs are draining his bank account and he can’t get a job because of the high-profile charge.

“It’s an anchor on me. I can’t go anywhere or do anything. I’m tired of the whole thing. I never could see any reason for it anyway,” Mr. Fowler said Wednesday.

A former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted a separate civil rights-era case said time is critical because most potential witnesses are elderly. “Every day that goes by is a day you risk losing a witness,” Doug Jones said.

Mr. Jones got convictions against two former Klansmen in 2001 and 2002 for a Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls in 1963. He said five of his witnesses died within a year after the trials ended.

Despite the effects of time, one thing has never changed about Mr. Fowler: his insistence that he shot Jimmie Lee Jackson in self-defense.

On Feb. 18, 1965, Mr. Fowler was one of several state troopers patrolling a night march by voting-rights activists in the town of Marion. They were marching to the Perry County Jail to protest the arrest of one of Martin Luther King’s lieutenants, the Rev. James Orange, for organizing blacks to try to vote.

Street lights went out and a melee started, with officers beating marchers.

Mr. Fowler maintains he fired because Mr. Jackson hit him in the head with a soft drink bottle and tried to wrestle away his gun.

History has recorded it differently. Civil rights museums in Alabama and the National Voting Rights Trail credit Mr. Jackson with trying to protect his mother and grandfather from getting beaten by troopers.

They say his death prompted organizers to plan a march from Selma to the state capital. State troopers beat those marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, an infamous event known as “Bloody Sunday.”

The 50-mile march soon resumed under federal protection with King leading it. The events helped to push Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which allowed many blacks in the South to vote for the first time.

Today, a National Park Service museum in west Alabama labels Mr. Jackson “a martyr of the movement” and calls his death “murder.”

So does Michael Jackson, who in 2005 became the first black district attorney for Perry County. He reopened the investigation into Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death and got a racially diverse grand jury to issue a murder indictment against Mr. Fowler in May 2007.

The presiding circuit judge, Thomas Jones, says in court papers that he has questions about the case because federal and state grand juries reviewed the shooting shortly after it occurred and brought no charges.

He ordered the prosecutor to furnish a list of potential trial witnesses and summaries of their expected testimony to the defense.

The district attorney appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which ruled Friday that disclosing the names would violate Alabama’s rules for criminal cases.

The district attorney had argued that if the names were revealed before trial, some elderly blacks might be reluctant to testify because they “still fear - with or without basis - intimidation tactics used in the segregation era.”

The prosecutor also asked the judge to step aside, claiming he “has lost all objectivity in this matter.” The judge has not responded to the request, but he has retained an attorney.

The judge’s lawyer, Susan Copeland, argued before the Supreme Court that the judge acted within his discretion.

Mr. Jackson said he will appeal if the judge doesn’t recuse himself. That would cause more delays in scheduling a trial.

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