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MARION, Ala. — A white former state trooper pleaded guilty Monday to a lesser charge in the 1965 shooting death of a black man at a civil rights protest, a killing that inspired historic voting rights marches.
James Bonard Fowler, 77, entered the plea of misdemeanor second-degree manslaughter two weeks before he was scheduled to go to trial on a murder charge for the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. It was the latest in a string of long-unresolved killings from the civil rights era brought to court by a new generation of local or federal prosecutors.
Jackson’s shooting in the city of Marion set off a protest march at nearby Selma that became known as “Bloody Sunday” when troopers and deputies attacked marchers after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River. The violence galvanized the movement, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who preached at Jackson’s funeral, later led the Selma-to-Montgomery march that was completed and prompted passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Fowler was sentenced to six months in jail in Geneva County, his home county.
Fowler was accused of shooting Jackson in Mack’s Cafe as a protest march turned into a melee in Marion on the night of Feb. 18, 1965. Fowler claimed Jackson was trying to grab the trooper’s gun and that he fired in self-defense. Witnesses said Jackson was trying to protect his mother and grandfather, who had been clubbed to the floor.
District Attorney Michael Jackson, who in 2005 became the first black prosecutor elected in Marion County, reopened the case and took it before a county grand jury, which indicted Fowler on a murder charge in May 2007. Jackson, who died at a Selma hospital days after the shooting, is now honored in civil rights museums in Alabama as a martyr of the movement.
Fowler, who apologized to Jackson’s family after entering the plea Monday, said he didn’t mean to kill anyone that night in 1965.
“I was coming over here to save lives. I didn’t mean to take lives. I wish I could redo it,” he said.
Defense attorney George Beck said Fowler agreed to plead guilty to the reduced charge because he was concerned he couldn’t get a fair trial in Perry County and his health is poor.
“He wants to put it behind him,” he said. “It puts to rest a long chapter of civil rights history here in Perry County.”
The district attorney recommended the plea to the family. He said he wanted Fowler to acknowledge what he did, apologize to the family and serve some time behind bars.
“This is almost like a death sentence for him at his age,” he said.
But Jackson’s daughter, Cordelia Billingsley, said, “This is supposed to be closure, but there will never be closure.”
Fowler could have received a maximum sentence of one year. He will be on probation for six months after serving six months in jail. The district attorney said Geneva County was chosen because of safety concerns if Fowler were jailed in Perry County, where the shooting happened.
Shortly after the shooting, federal and state grand juries conducted reviews and brought no charges. The new district attorney, however, reopened it, as have other federal and state prosecutors taking new looks at civil rights era violence in the South in recent years.
Among those brought to trial decades after the crimes were Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton, former Ku Klux Klansmen convicted of murder in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls.
Fowler’s case had exceeded the most drawn-out civil rights cold case prosecution so far. Three years and two months elapsed between the indictment and 2004 conviction of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for the slaying of Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963. Fowler was indicted in May 2007 – three years and six months ago.
The delay was chiefly because of disagreements between the prosecutor and Circuit Judge Tommy Jones, who is white. Jackson had challenged the judge’s order to give the defense a list of potential witnesses and their expected testimony. On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled the judge went too far.
The plea agreement was reached while Jackson was seeking an order to remove Jones from the case.