Former trooper facing trial over 1965 killing

Published 6:58 pm Thursday, July 10, 2008

MONTGOMERY – A former Alabama state trooper is scheduled to go on trial in October for a slaying that occurred on darkened streets during a historic civil rights demonstration in Marion in 1965.

Circuit Judge Tommy Jones declined to dismiss an indictment against former trooper James Bonard Fowler and scheduled his trial for the week of Oct. 20.

“We look forward to having this matter resolved after 43 years,” District Attorney Michael Jackson said Thursday.

A Perry County grand jury indicted Fowler on May 9, 2007, on first-degree and second-degree murder charges involving the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Fowler’s attorney, George Beck, had asked the judge to dismiss the charges because of the passage of time and the death of defense witnesses, but the judge declined.

Jackson, a 26-year-old black man, was shot by the white trooper during a civil rights protest in the west Alabama town on Feb. 18, 1965. Jackson died eight days later at a Selma hospital.

The shooting happened after street lights went out during a nighttime civil rights march and violence erupted. Civil rights museums in Alabama say Jackson was shot trying to stop state troopers from beating his grandfather and mother. Fowler maintains he shot in self-defense after Jackson hit him with a drink bottle and tried to grab his gun.

Fowler’s defense wants the trial moved from west Alabama because signs and historic markers in Perry County portray Jackson as a martyr of the civil rights movement. Beck argued that the shooting was self-defense and that his 74-year-old client couldn’t get a fair trial in the county where it occurred. The judge declined to rule on moving the trial until jurors are questioned in October, and the district attorney said court officials will call a larger-than-normal pool of potential jurors.

“Mr. Fowler continues to believe he cannot get a fair trial in Perry County. He feels what he did was justified under the circumstances, and he feels if he can get an fair and impartial jury, he will be acquitted,” Beck said Thursday.

Jackson’s shooting prompted civil rights activists to set out on a Selma-to-Montgomery march, which was turned back at Selma by club-wielding troopers and deputies in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” A later march, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., made it all the way to the Alabama Capitol and led Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which allowed millions of Southern blacks to register to vote.

A federal grand jury in Mobile reviewed the shooting shortly after it occurred and brought no charges. Michael Jackson reopened the investigation after he became Perry County’s first black district attorney in 2005.