Ex-Trooper Pleads Guilty In Civil Rights-Era Slaying

In Alabama, a white former state trooper pleaded guilty Monday in a 1965 shooting death of a black man at a civil rights protest. The plea, to a lesser charge of manslaughter, came on the first day of jury selection in the trial of James Fowler. He admitted to shooting and killing Jimmie Lee Jackson. That death set off a wave of protests and led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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In Alabama today, a murder case from 45 years ago ended with a plea bargain. A white, former state trooper pleaded guilty to killing a black civil rights protester. Back in 1965, the murder served as one spark for events that led to the Voting Rights Act.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Standing in a courtroom in rural Marion, Alabama, today, 77-year-old James Fowler said he didn't mean to kill anyone. Fowler was soon to face trial for the 1965 murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young voting rights activist shot to death during a clash with white state troopers. Jackson's killing led to the Selma-to-Montgomery marches that drew national attention to the struggle for voting rights in the South.

No charges were brought back in the 1960s, but in 2005, the first black prosecutor elected in Perry County, Alabama, reopened the case and charged the former trooper with murder. District Attorney Michael Jackson, no relation to the victim, says Fowler agreed to plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter, and will serve six months in jail.

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (District Attorney, Perry County, Alabama): Six months could, in effect, be a death sentence for him 'cause his poor health.

ELLIOTT: Jackson says the plea deal required Fowler to apologize to Jimmie Lee Jackson's family, including his daughter and sister, who were in the courtroom.

Mr. JACKSON: He just said he was sorry that that happened, that he wished it had never happened and - wish he could bring him back, but he can't so - of course, the family would've liked for him to have looked at them when he said it, but he was looking at the judge when he made his apology.

ELLIOTT: Defense Attorney George Beck says Fowler wants to put the case behind him. He says the plea agreement quote, puts to rest a long chapter of civil rights history. But some were hoping for a trial as a public airing of what happened at the hand of state authorities.

Richard Cohen is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Mr. RICHARD COHEN (President, Southern Poverty Law Center): It's kind of an anti-climactic ending to a very, very important chapter in civil rights history.

ELLIOTT: But Cohen says he can't second-guess the district attorney, given how difficult it is to try old civil rights cases when many witnesses and suspects are now elderly, and others are dead.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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