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Trooper charged with murder had rollercoaster career

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — A former state trooper charged with the murder of a black man at a civil rights melee at Marion in 1965 won high ratings and a raise after the fatal shooting, but got fired three years later for knocking out a supervisor.

During James Bonard Fowler’s seven years as a state trooper, he was responsible for killing two men — both black — in shootings he said were in self-defense. Neither shooting death is mentioned in Fowler’s state personnel file, provided by the agency at the request of The Associated Press.

Military veteran

After his firing from the trooper force, he became a decorated military veteran, serving in Vietnam, ran a small cattle farm in Southeast Alabama and was sued by his daughter. He has also become the latest defendant in a cold case from the civil rights era.

Murder indictment

Fowler, 73, of Geneva surrendered Thursday in Marion to face a murder indictment for the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson on Feb. 18, 1965. Fowler, who is free on bond, maintains he shot when Jackson tried to grab his gun during a struggle between marchers and state troopers.

On May 8, 1966, Fowler killed Nathan Johnson Jr., 34, of Birmingham, in a confrontation at the Alabaster city jail. News reports at the time said Johnson, arrested for DUI, grabbed Fowler’s nightstick and hit him on the shoulder and arm before Fowler shot him twice in the chest.

After getting fired for beating his supervisor in 1968, Fowler entered the military, serving until the early 1970s and winning silver stars for his service in Vietnam, where he went to avenge his brother’s death in the war.

Friends speak out

“He’s a real live patriot,” Geneva attorney John L. Knowles, a lifelong friend, said Friday.

Another friend, Geneva veterinarian Mickey Baine, said he and Fowler have talked about the Jackson shooting several times over the last 20 years.

“His story has not varied — that he shot Jimmie Lee Jackson in self-defense,” Baine said Friday.

Fowler, called “Bon-ard” by his friends, grew up in Geneva and attended Geneva High School. After graduation in 1953, he served in the U.S. Navy until 1957. He attended the University of Alabama from 1958 until 1960. He worked for Hayes Aircraft in Dothan before getting hired by the state troopers in 1961, according to state personnel records.

Early career

His early job evaluations were marked “fair,” with one supervisor writing that Fowler “has been involved in minor infractions of department policies.”

“He is somewhat egotistical and has not followed instructions satisfactorily,” the supervisor wrote.

The job evaluations that were done every six months improved over time, with a supervisor rating his work “good” in 1962 and writing,

“In no way has he failed to measure up to the requirements of the department and in due time should make an excellent patrolman.”

In 1964, he got an “excellent” ranking and was promoted to corporal.

After shooting Jackson in 1965, he got another “excellent” rating and a 90 score on his personnel evaluation — the second highest mark of his career. He also got a 5 percent raise for his good performance.

The personnel records provided to the AP contain no mention of Fowler shooting Jackson in 1965 or Johnson in 1966.

Fowler continued to get “good” or “excellent” ratings every six months, until Sept. 26, 1968, when his supervisor, Sgt. T.B. Barden, accused him of attacking him at the trooper office in Birmingham because of a bad job evaluation.

At the scene

Reports from other troopers at the scene said Fowler rammed Barden’s head into the windshield of a car, breaking the windshield and knocking Barden unconscious. Barden was taken by ambulance to a Birmingham hospital, where he was treated and released.

The troopers fired Fowler, saying he brought “discredit to the organization by his actions.” He appealed to the state Personnel Board, which upheld his dismissal.

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

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