Retired Trooper Claims Self-Defense in Shooting

A retired Alabama state trooper turned himself in to authorities a day after he was indicted for a fatal shooting 42 years ago. James Fowler has maintained he fired in self-defense when a young black man died during a civil rights demonstration. That death sparked the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, a story about justice delayed for more than 40 years. In 1965, Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot to death by a state trooper in Alabama. At the time, he and his mother were in a cafe. They had fled a civil rights demonstration where police were going after protesters with billy clubs.

Jackson's death drew attention from national civil rights leaders who staged another march in his honor. The historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

As NPR's Audie Cornish reports, the former trooper involved in Jimmy Lee Jackson's death went back to Marion, Alabama, today and turned himself in to face a new charge of murder.

AUDIE CORNISH: At 73, James Bernard Fowler is now facing charges of first- and second-degree murder in connection with the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson in 1965. Recently diagnosed with diabetes, Fowler maintains his cropped haircut, now short, powder white bristles, and he's slow moving, ambling up the courthouse steps while cameras snapped away. He mumbled niceties to the off-duty officer who escorted him down the courthouse hall. It was Carlton Hogue, a deputy sheriff and a cousin to the victim.

Mr. CARLTON HOGUE (Deputy Sheriff, Marion, Alabama; Cousin of Jimmy Lee Jackson): I decided to be there because I want to see first hand, Mr. Fowler's demeanor. I want to see the reception that he would get from the people in the town. I don't harbor any hatred. That's just not me. But I do want to see justice done.

CORNISH: Back in 1965, civil rights protesters gathered along this street behind the courthouse to demonstrate over the issue of voting rights, but they didn't make it very far before Fowler and dozens of other state police troopers violently dispersed the crowd. Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot in a local cafe where he and his mother had escaped the melee outside.

But what happened next is the central question of the new investigation. Was Jackson shot while shielding his mother from the police officer, Fowler? Or was he shot while attacking the officer with a bottle?

District Attorney Michael Jackson, no relation to the victim, says it's time for the citizens of Marion to know the truth.

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (District Attorney, Marion, Alabama): It's just you don't want an open wound to stay open forever, you want to put a Band-Aid on and close them, put some warm clothes on that wound up. That's what we're trying to do here.

CORNISH: In his police reports, James Bernard Fowler said he fired in self-defense, and that version of events went unchallenged until now. His defense attorney, George Beck, says the new charges could prove a challenge.

Mr. GEORGE BECK (Defense Attorney for James Bernard Fowler): Two troopers who were eyewitnesses no longer exist because they're dead. So that's two eyewitnesses we don't have. We don't have the - Governor Wallace who made the order, we don't have those people to talk about the atmosphere, to recreate what was going on, and to actually be eyewitnesses. So we're hamstrung and prejudiced greatly by that.

CORNISH: Beck says not every civil rights era death should be labeled murder. But the victim's daughter, Carol Heard Billingsley, says she's grateful prosecutors are taking this chance.

Ms. CAROL HEARD BILLINGSLEY (Daughter of Jimmy Lee Jackson): You know, I thought wouldn't have a chance, you know, by being in this town, you know, to speak up as me as a black woman to find out more about the official - I thought nobody would listen to me, things that I want to find out what's happened to my father.

CORNISH: Weeks after the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson, civil rights activists marched in his honor on Selma and due in part to the violent ending of that march, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in Congress.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Marion, Alabama.

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