MARION, Ala. – A retired state trooper indicted in a slaying during a civil rights protest 42 years ago turned himself in Thursday, even though he insists he did nothing wrong, his lawyer said.
Wednesday's indictment against James Bonard Fowler, 73, is an attempt to rewrite history about a man who was protecting himself and fellow troopers, defense attorney George Beck said.
A racially diverse Perry County grand jury spent two hours hearing evidence before returning the indictment against Fowler, who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion during a 1965 demonstration that turned into a club-swinging melee. The shooting became the catalyst for the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965 and passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Fowler arrived at the courthouse Thursday to face the charge.
Fowler, who lives in Geneva in southeast Alabama, about 50 miles from Marion, has maintained he fired in self-defense after Jackson grabbed his gun from its holster and they struggled over the weapon.
"I don't think every civil rights killing means something was done illegally," Beck said.
Statements from witnesses, some of whom are now dead, indicated Fowler was protecting himself and other troopers, his lawyer said.
"I think somebody is trying to rewrite history and I don't think it's fair to this trooper," he said.
District Attorney Michael Jackson said he could not discuss the indictment until Fowler receives it, but he said he started the grand jury investigation to "help Jimmie Lee Jackson's family get closure."
Jimmie Lee Jackson's daughter, Cordelia Heard Billingsley of Marion, who was 4 at the time of the killing, said the case had been swept aside for years and she was pleased to see the prosecutor pursue Fowler.
"This man took my father from me. I want to find out what happened. My last memory of my father is laying my hand on his forehead in the casket," she said.
Fowler was among a contingent of law officers sent to Marion on the night of Feb. 18, 1965. According to witnesses, about 500 people were marching from a church toward the jail to protest the incarceration of a civil rights worker when the street lights went out. Troopers contended the crowd refused orders to disperse. Soon law officers began swinging billy clubs, with marchers fleeing.
A group of protesters ran into Mack's Cafe, pursued by troopers. The cafe operator said 82-year-old Cager Lee was clubbed to the floor along with his daughter, Viola Jackson, whose son, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot trying to help them. Jackson died at a Selma hospital. He was 26.
The indictment is the latest in a series of civil rights-era prosecutions across the South that have been resurrected after lying dormant for decades. Prosecutors have won convictions in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls and in the 1964 killings of three civil rights volunteers near Philadelphia, Miss.
In light of those cases, people in Alabama began to call for a new examination of Jackson's death. Michael Jackson, who was elected in 2004 as the first black district attorney in the Selma and Marion district and is no relation to Jimmie Lee Jackson, said he acted on these calls.
Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who won murder convictions of two ex-Klansmen in the Birmingham church bombing, said that unlike that case, the Marion case hinges on motive.
"This is not a random act of racially motivated crime. This is law enforcement," he said. "It's never been a question of who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson. It's under what circumstances, and whether there was criminal intent."