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Ex-trooper charged in '65 murder case remains free on bond

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MARION — A former state trooper surrendered Thursday on a murder charge in the 1965 shooting death of a black man, a killing during a civil rights protest that led to historic marches at Selma and passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Former trooper James Bonard Fowler, who contends he fired in self-defense in a struggle over a gun, was charged with first-degree and second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson.

The first-degree charge is for a killing that is intentional, while the second-degree charge is for one that is unintentional. A jury could pick either. Both charges, which were under state law in effect in 1965, carry a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted, but the minimum sentences were not immediately clear.

Fowler, who is 73 and lives in Geneva in Southeast Alabama, was allowed to remain free on a $250,000 property bond.

No date for a hearing was set. Fowler's attorney, George Beck, said he would seek to have the charges dismissed. He said the case is prejudiced against his client because of the passage of time and the death of witnesses who could help the defense.

District Attorney Michael Jackson, no relation to the victim, said Thursday that in probing the four-decade-old case he learned that Fowler also shot a detainee to death in 1966 at the city jail in Alabaster and struck his trooper superior officer in 1968.

Alabama Department of Public Safety records show that Fowler was fired on
Sept. 30, 1968, but do not indicate the reason.

Fowler did not comment on the two incidents Thursday. Beck said he was uncertain about details of the Alabaster shooting, but he said the 1968 altercation occurred when Fowler was mourning the death of his brother in Vietnam and there was a disagreement over sick pay. "That guy called him out and hit him, and I think he hit him back," said Beck.

The Anniston Star first reported Thursday on Fowler's 1968 firing for striking his superior officer, T.B. Barden of Wilsonville, and the 1966 fatal shooting of Nathan Johnson Jr. in Alabaster, which Fowler told the newspaper occurred when an intoxicated Johnson grabbed his billy club and began hitting him.

After hearing two hours of testimony, a racially diverse Perry County grand jury returned an indictment Wednesday against Fowler in the 1965 killing at Marion.

Fowler is accused of shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson in Mack's Cafe, where a number of people fled after troopers and other law officers broke up a march at Marion on the night of Feb. 18, 1965. Witnesses said the officers were clubbing people in an out-of-control attack that continued into the cafe, where they said Jackson was trying to get troopers off his mother and grandfather when he was shot.

Accounts by troopers say the crowd refused orders to disperse and, when the street lights suddenly went out, they began being pelted by bricks and bottles. Fowler said he was assisting a trooper who had been struck in Mack's Cafe when Jackson hit him on the head with a bottle. Fowler said he fired the gun when Jackson tried to grab the gun from his holster.

"He was up here quelling a disturbance and someone was killed," said Fowler's attorney, George Beck. "It's very unfortunate but it's certainly not murder. Under no circumstances could it be intentional murder or murder. The shooting was justified and the evidence will show this."

Fowler said little other than describing himself as a farmer. He was wearing a green knit shirt, brown casual pants and tennis shoes.

The shooting of Jackson inspired the "Bloody Sunday" protest at Selma on March 7, 1965, which set the stage for the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march later that month.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a protest leader who was clubbed to the ground on Bloody Sunday, said he was gratified to learn of the indictment.

"It was the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson that provoked the march from Selma to Montgomery. It was his death and his blood that gave us the Voting Rights Act of 1965," Lewis said in a statement. "This indictment will lead to closure. It will lead to healing. It will lead to reconciliation."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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