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Posted Saturday, April 5, 2007
1965 civil rights death gets new look
By Phillip Rawls, Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - A fatal shooting by a state trooper that helped inspire the march from Selma in 1965 and the "Bloody Sunday" protest that preceded it will get a fresh look next week by a special grand jury.

Former State Trooper James Bonard Fowler has insisted for years that he shot black Vietnam War veteran Jimmie Lee Jackson in self-defense when Jackson grabbed Fowler's pistol during a melee in a Marion cafe.

"There is no question about who did the shooting. The question is whether this was a murder or it was something else," said District Attorney Michael Jackson, who is not related to the victim.

Jackson reopened the case at the request of constituents who felt the full story had never been told, he said. He will convene a Perry County grand jury Wednesday and expects an indictment.

On the night of Feb. 18, 1965, about 500 people started marching from Zion United Methodist Church toward the Marion city jail to protest the jailing of a civil rights worker. They were met by a line of city police, sheriff's deputies and state troopers.

According to witness accounts, the street lights suddenly went out, billy clubs started swinging and a group of protesters ran into Mack's Cafe, pursued by state troopers.

In the melee, 82-year-old Cager Lee was clubbed to the floor, as was his daughter, Viola Jackson, when she rushed to his side. Her son, recently returned Vietnam, tried to help them and was shot, according to the cafe operator.

Jimmie Lee Jackson died days later at a Selma hospital. He was 26.

A month later, state troopers and deputies beat demonstrators at the start of a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest Jackson's death and to seek voting rights. TV shots of the attack, which became known as "Bloody Sunday," were seen around the world.

The assault became a galvanizing event in the civil rights movement, leading to the march on Washington later that month and passage of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Fowler's version of the events the night Jimmie Lee Jackson was hurt was accepted by state officials in 1965. But in recent years, as prosecutors began to solve old civil rights-era slayings including the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls in 1963 and the slaying of three civil rights workers Mississippi in 1964 people in west Alabama began to call for a new examination of Jackson's death.

Fowler, 72, is retired and living in Geneva, Ala. He referred all questions to his attorney. But in a 2005 interview with The Associated Press, he said, "I didn't intend to hurt that man. He snatched my weapon out of my holster and we were fighting for it. I was very sorry that it happened."

Fowler's attorney, George Beck, said he is hamstrung in presenting his side because officers who were with Fowler that night in Mack's Cafe have died.

"It's not a murder or typical killing. Mr. Fowler was defending himself and his fellow state troopers," said Beck, whose client has not been asked to testify before the grand jury.

"We feel like it's a travesty to bring this at such a late date."

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

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