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Report From Albany, Ga.

A Harvard Law Student Writes About The Recent Trial Of A Local Negro


Editors note: The difficulties encountered this summer by John Perdew, a Harvard senior working on a SNCC veter registration drive in Albany, Ga., have served to bring home to the Harvard community the extraordinary obstacles facing the civil rights effort in the south. The following two-part report of the trial of a Negro near Albany express in greater detail the farce that the State of Georgia has made of the law. The fact that the defendant had dared sue the Sheriff last spring perhaps explains, although not justifies the viciousness of the county officials.

The writer, a second year student at the Harvard Law School, is working this summer as an assistant to C. B. King, a Negro civil rights lawyer in Albany. She reports that her association with King has aroused considerable hostility among the townspeople, as they apparently suspected him of having relations with her, a white woman.

On Monday, July 22, Charlie Ware stood trial on the first of three criminal indictments brought against him. The scene was the tiny city of Newton, located in Baker County, Georgia. This slight, almost fragile Negro man of about 45 faced charges of being drunk on the public highway, drunkenness on a ball park, and assault with intent to murder the Sheriff of Baker County, L. Warren Johnson. It was an historical setting. For it was here that former Sheriff Claude Screws twenty years ago dragged another Negro, Bobby Hall, by the bumper of his car into the next county and then around the same courthouse. Stopping at the Artesian well located at the eastern edge of the courthouse, Screws beat Hall to death.

History intruded into this case. Two of the key figures in the trial, Sheriff Johnson and Frank Jones, had been deputies under Screws, and at least one of them participated in the murder. And it was in this courtroom that two years ago a white man and his wife and a Negro friend were dragged over benches and out of the courtroom, as the same judge sat passively by.

But this case itself made history, for on Friday, although finding Ware guilty, the jury sentenced him to a maximum of five years and a minimum of three, five years less than the statuatory limit. They also returned a recommendation for mercy, asking the court to treat the felony as a misdemeanor in passing sentence. The judge refused the recommendation, sentencing him to three to five years on the charge of assault with intent to murder, and to 12 months on the charge of drunkenness on the ball park. On the previous Monday, another jury had found Charlie Ware guilty of being drunk on the public highway, and the judge in that matter sentenced him to a fine of $100 or one year.

Verdict Unexpected

The verdict of the jury was unexpected, and in the context of Baker county and the whole of Southwest Georgia, unusual. These 12 Georgia Crackers, most of whom were farmers, most of whom subscribed to no newspaper, all of whom had little if any education, have lived in a world in which brutality to Negroes is not merely legend but reality. Baker county is a name that brings shudders of horror to Negroes fortunate enough to live elsewhere. To them it is a jungle, a hell, in which the white man is king of nothing except his color and his gun. Negroes, surprisingly, outnumber the whites by almost a three to two margin, but their standard of living is extremely low. Most are croppers or tenants on large plantations owned primarily by persons living in the North who came South to shoot quail in the winter. The Negroes are given a two-room shack, paid about $20 a week, and are at the constant beck and call of the boss man. Eking out a living becomes an overwhelming problem to these people, especially in the face of incessant harrassment and oppression, if not actual violence, by the whites. Although a hundred years have passed since the Civil War, the Negro is virtually a slave in Baker County. It cannot be said, however, that the whites are free. Feeding on sadism, glorying in the license their color allows, they lead a depraved existence. Illiteracy, ignorance, poverty is their lot as well.

It was in this context that Charlie Ware stood trial. But times had changed, if only grudgingly, and with the ever-present possibility that the barbarism in its crude and original form would return.

The courtroom was filled on the first day. Whites crowded the downstairs section, chomping on wads of tobacco and spitting the juice into antebellum spittoons or, if these weren't available, on the floor. The odor of rank whiskey permeated the place. The faces were hard and mean, with thin, sharp noses, suspicious, light-colored eyes, leathery red necks. Above, in the balcony reserved for Negroes, commonly called the "buzard's roost," it was quiet, except for the occasional crying of a baby. Located on the second floor of the grotesque courthouse, which is made of red Geogia clay, the courtroom was large but the air hung still. Around the walls and the ceiling the paint had long since peeled, leaving brown gashes. The judge sat in a creaking chair under a sign, slightly askew, that read "keep smiling." An American flag stood at his right and four fans hung from the ceiling. Only three worked, adding a strange accompaniment to the proceedings. The judge, with gray hair and a beaked nose, poured ice water continually into a glass, had the segregationist Albany Herald brought to him each day at about 3 P.M. which he diligently read for the following hour. Before making any pronouncement he shifted the tobacco in his mouth, spat, and then spoke in a creaking inaudible voice, that even counsel sitting in front of him had to strain to hear.

Attorneys Charge Bias

The charge on Monday was for drunkenness on the public highway. The attorneys for the defendant, Donald L. Hollowell of Atlanta, and C.B. King of Albany, Georgia, both Negroes, moved immediately to quash the indictment on grounds that the grand jury was and had always been, completely white. They charged that in the selection of the grand jury a policy of systematic exclusion of Negroes had been pursued. The attornies examined the tax collector, a Mr. Hudson, with withered hands and bird-like expression, who co-operatively gave them the information about the tax rolls. He testified that jurors are selected from the list of owners of either real property or personalty, but that whites are listed in front of the tax book, and Negroes in the back on yellow pages. Then the clerk of the court, Leslie Bush, a thin man with brush hair cut, tried to sidestep the emerging evidence that an "N" was placed after Negroes on the jury lists. Except he called them "niggers" and Atty. Hollowell requested the court to reprimand the witness for using improper language. The court refused and Bush declared that he had been using the word all his life and Hollowell had been the only Negro to object. Although Bush had just signed an affidavit submitted to him by the defense attorneys which said that he knew some upright, intelligent Negroes who owned property in Baker County, when asked this question on the stand he balked. Several Negroes were called to testify that they had never seen a Negro on the grand jury. Even the Sheriff, L. Warren Johnson, a huge hulking man weighing about 246 pounds and standing about six feet three inches tall was called to the stand. With his gray hair thinning away from his face, his glasses gave him no look of a scholar, but merely compounded the oafish quality of his features. The Sheriff agreed that no Negroes appear on grand juries in Baker County, but he was not willing to admit that any Negroes were upright and intelligent. The motion to quash the indictment was denied, and the motion attacking the array of jurors for the reason that Negroes had been systematically excluded was similarly denied.

Jury Called

The jury panel was called, and twenty two men stood up and filtered to the front of the room, some in overalls, most in ill-fitting dungarees or khaki pants. The last two men called were Negroes, and as their steps could be heard clambering down from the buzzards' roost, the people in the audience turned to one another with smiles. The strategy was clever; they intended to call one Negro for each twelve whites so as to vitiate the constitutional objection to the selection of jurors. There was no chance to test the tactic, because the defense had used its seven strikes and the twelve men had been chosen before the names of the Negroes had been reached.

The Sheriff's brother was called to the stand. Ben Johnson, the deputy sheriff said he had noticed a car which was going very slowly, an indication to him that something must be wrong. As he approached the car and asked the driver, John Hayes, for his license, he alleged that Charlie Ware, who appeared to him to be very, very drunk, called out something like "God damn the Law and you too." Under the Georgia statute dealing with public drunkenness, any person who displays his drunkenness in a public place by using vile language or violent discourse is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Charlie Ware's testimony and that of the two persons accompanying him in the car differed substantially. Yes, they probably had been going slowly, for Newton is a "speed trap" and Negroes are arrested and fined heavily for "speeding" or drunken driving when they are crawling along the road or even absolutely sober. But the three Negroes testified that Ware was sound asleep at the time that the car was stopped.

No Liquor Seen

Although Ben Johnson admitted that he saw no liquor bottles, the argument of the prosecution was that the Sheriff couldn't have possibly arrested Charlie Ware and Hayes arbitrarily. If he had been unfair to Charlie then why wasn't he equally unfair to Hayes who was released the next morning while Ware was kept in jail on the charge of public drunkenness.

At this point Atty. Hollowell asked the Judge to order the Sheriff away from the judge's bench, where he had been lounging casually. The judge announced that the Sheriff, as an officer of the court, could stay wherever he wanted. This was Johnson's bailwick, and it was not difficult to see who was in command of the proceedings as he talked to the State's attorneys and joked with the judge during the progress of the trials.

The jury also took its responsibility quite casually: several of its members looked out to the audience and grinned at the testimony of Ware and his Negro companions. Since the word of one or even three Negroes can hardly outweigh the word of a white man, a verdict convicting Charlie Ware of public drunkenness was returned after the jury deliberated for but fifteen minutes. The first day was over.

Jury Impanelled

The second day began with the impanelling of the jury for the trial of Charlie Ware on charges of public drunkenness in a ball park and assault with intent to murder. The defense was allowed twenty strikes, which they used judiciously.

Drawing upon information given to them by local Negroes, they eliminated persons who were notoriously vicious. There were only two or three though, who were known at one point or another to have shown some slight sign of humanity toward a Negro. Since the defense had also learned that there was an anti-Sheriff faction in Baker County, they hoped to get some members of this group on the jury. Even so, it was difficult to see the standard used for weeding out the diabolical from the simply evil. The State, represented by B.C. Gardner, used three of its strikes against Negroes.

The counsel for the State, in its opening argument to the jury, stated the prosecution's main contentions. He argued that on July 4, 1961, at the barbeque held at Ichauway Plantation in Baker County a spat occured between a Negro man and his wife, and her son. Ware, attempting to break up the fight got into a tussle with the son, and, being very drunk, cursed loudly when the white overseer of the plantation, Guy Touchstone, asked him to leave. This was the basis for the indictment of drunkenness in the ball park. Guy Touch stone was then alleged to have called the law, but by the time Ben Johnson, the deputy sheriff arrived, almost everyone, including Charlie Ware had left.

After an extended search, Johnson finally located Ware at his house, where he was ready to go to sleep. Johnson ordered Ware into his car, searched him--finding only a small pen knife which he confiscated--and headed back towards Newton to the county jail.

At the end of the trip, the Sheriff contended, Ware suddenly grabbed him around the neck with his right arm and said: "I cut your goddamned head off." The 6 ft. 2 in. Johnson felt no knife, but not stopping to ask questions, knocked Ware off him with his left arm and then proceeded to shoot him three or four times in the neck and shoulder with his 38 Smith and Wesson.

Some Came Running

Two men came running over, Jim Watson, the night policeman, and a man named Jack Minter. Watson allegedly found "a knife of some sort under Charlie's left leg." The knife was removed and the men went with the Sheriff to take Ware to the hospital in Camilla. According to the prosecution, Ware bit the Sheriff on his right arm and later in the thigh during the trip to the hospital. Minter, supposedly enraged, put a gun against Ware's neck and said: "I'll blow your brains out." The Sheriff then allegedly told him not to shoot. From this incident the State reasoned that if the Sheriff had wanted to kill Ware he wouldn't have taken him to the hospital or restrained his companion from shooting him in the car.

As the State developed its case, a number of contradictions and impossibilities emerged from the witness stand. Touchstone, the first witness, gave a particularly revealing show; he asserted that Ware was drunk, but admitted that he was never closer than 15-20 ft. to him. He swore Ware cursed at him, although he had never seen Ware before and didn't know the sound of his voice. He did admit Ware appeared to be a peacemaker in the fight.

Why did Touchstone want to get Ware? The answer to that question, provided by rumor, never was brought out at the trial. Apparently Touchstone had been living with a Negro woman for several years and had seen her talking to Ware at the barbeque.

Johnson Takes Stand

Sheriff Warren Johnson was next on the witness stand. He reiterated the allegations made in the opening arguments of counsel, but he admitted never taking out a warrant. In fact, he declared, he had not taken out a warrant for anyone's arrest during his six years as Sheriff. He hadn't barged into Ware's home, he reported, but had been invited in. Anyway, he only wanted to arrest Ware for his own protection and the protection of society.

It was raining hard on Wednesday when the trial resumed; some water began to leak through the roof and drip down next to the defense attorney's table. The little wizened bailiff brought a spittoon over to catch the increasing flow of drops.

The Sheriff ambled back to the stand. He couldn't remember how he had leaned into the car and refused to identify a photograph of a 61 Olds Super 88 as his car. The State attorney, Gardner, tried to have the Sheriff read from a deposition, but Johnson, with his fifth grade education, stumbled to an embarrassed halt.

The next witness for the state was Jack Minter. Angered by the fact he was being cross-examined and challenged by Negro lawyers, Minter spoke in a belligerant and extremely hostile voice. He said that he had been standing near the courthouse and had heard some words sort of like "I'll cut your god damned head off." He couldn't be too sure of the exact words though--he was standing more than 100 yards away. He reported that he, with Watson rather far behind, ran over to the car as soon as the shots were fired.

Further Testimony

Although the Sherif had asserted that Ware, in the hasty trip to Camilla hospital, had been slumped over, Minter had him sitting up straight. When asked to demonstrate how Ware, from an erect position, could bite the Sheriff, Minter leaned stiffly to the left and with a quick jerk of his head took a chomp at the air.

Minter maintained that he saw a scratch on Johnson's arm, although Johnson himself thought only a slight bruise had marked the spot where the had been bitten.

When asked by Atty. Hollowell: "You never did care what happened to Charlie Ware then and you don't now, isn't that right?" Minter emphatically replied "That's right."

Then Watson took the stand. Slow witted, he didn't hear any conversation after the Sheriff came back from the jail to the car, but heard some talk before he went to the jail. Also, he was sure that he got to the car before Minter. Although according to the Sheriff it was Watson who found the knife, Watson maintained that when he got there the Sheriff showed him the knife. The relief the State felt when Watson left the stand was audible.

Finally, Dr. Williams, the physician who had removed a bullet from Ware at the hospital, was called. The State had attempted to prove that Ware was still crazy drunk when he allegedly assaulted the Sheriff, but the doctor first said that Ware's condition might have been caused by the truama of being shot at least three times. Nervous and blinking rapidly, Williams was forced by the State to read from a chart stating Ware was drunk when admitted.

Prosecution rested its case at this point. The defense moved for a directed verdict, a motion that contends the State has not adduced enough evidence to make a case against the defendent. Naturally the motion was quickly overruled

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