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Southern Justice: 1978


By Brenda A. Russell

TOMMY LEE HINES is a 26-year-old mentally retarded citizen of Decatur, Alabama. Today he is an unwitting martyr in the struggle for civil rights.

In February, mid-March, and early May of this year, three white Decatur women were raped; $300 dollars was stolen from one of the victims. For weeks Decatur police searched for a black man fitting the rather vague description. On May 23 they arrested Tommy Lee Hines.

Up to that point, Hines had been quite comfortable at the Cherry Street School--a day-school for the retarded. Confident that he could do something on his own--independent of the school--he went to a factory on the day of his arrest and peeped in to apply for a job. One of the rape victims, an employee at the factory, called the police.

While the police were en route, Hines sat down and proceeded to fill out the four-page job application. He wrote "Tomny Hishs 509 ADC" all over the application, paying no attention to lines or margins. Witnesses said "he just sat there scribbling," as though he were engaged in something of great importance.

Upon arrival the police informed Hines of his rights. "Have you been to the post office lately?" they asked (one of the rapes occured near a post office).

"Yes, I went about six weeks ago," Hines replied.

"Why did you go to the post office?"

"To get some business papers."

"When you went, did you see a woman?"

"One time."

"Did you talk to her?"


"Did you rape her?"


"What did you do with the can?" (One case involved a can.)

"The can? I threw it in the garbage can."

"Well, how many women did you rape, two or three?"

"Oh, I raped three." Tommy smiled.

Richard Hines said, "They sure messed that boy up," referring to his newly-jailed son. The Hines family has always lived in Decatur's low-income housing projects. The father is retired and his mother has never worked. Their only source of income is Richard's monthly retirement check.

The police held Hines in custody for two days during which no one but teachers from the Cherry Street School were allowed to see him. The teachers reported that Tommy seemed very unhappy and wanted very much to go home. He refused to talk to them--something very unusual, for Tommy had always seemed more than willing to open up to friends. The police said Tommy readily offered information. In fact, they said, he had voluntarily waived his rights.

"Tommy can only respond to simple requests. He'll always tell you what he perceives you'll want to hear. He always wants to please. Authority is something he gives in to--like a child," said Hines' lawyer, Henry Mims. A committee composed of Steve Wynn, a Decatur black businessman, Dr. Densmore Robinson, the white principal of the Cherry Street School and past president of the Alabama Association of the Disabled and Handicapped, and Rev. Alphonso Robinson, the minister of the Newcomb Street Church of Christ, the Hines' family church, asked Mims to take the case.

Six months earlier, Mims, a Huntsville attorney, argued a case for the Decatur community against the City of Decatur Board of Education. The plaintiffs wanted to stop the re-bussing of a Lecatur school; the Committee felt he knew the community and could do a good job on the basis of his record.

After two days the committee put up the money for the $25,000 bond and the police freed Hines. Mims later regretted that most of the committee membership is black: "It should not have a color line--this is not a black and white issue, it's an issue of human rights. Calling it black or white polarizes the community. The community should be together on this," he said.

Rev. R.B Cottonreader, national field director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), arrived in Decatur the same day Mims took over as Hines' lawyer. Cottonreader immediately tried to mobilize Decatur blacks for marches and protests. The first protest took place in Decatur a week later with approximately 150 marchers--a large number for the hot, humid, early summers that come to Alabama. Singing the songs of the old civil rights days, the marchers harmonized in a rendition of "We Shall Overcome" as they walked on, braving the heat, stares from reporters and curious faces. The group, composed of mostly young people, loudly shouted "Free Tommy Hines" as they approached the courthouse. Decatur police and Alabama state troopers stood in front of the entrances to the courthouse, allowing only lawyers and those appearing to be on court business inside. Cottonreader and two associates approached but were told they could not enter on the pretext they might incite a riot. Most of the marchers returned with blankets and camped out on the front lawn of the building until a court order removed them.

Hines' church offered its facilities for mass rallies and as general headquarters for the SCLC effort. Members of the congregation often told of how one or two members would go to the Hines home and bring Tommy to church and bring him home after services. Rev. Robinson, Hines' friend, said he would come and sit in the front row every Sunday morning and smile.

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama, a city of over 160,000 and the third largest in the state, overshadows nearby Decatur. Huntsville grew phenomenally in the '50s because of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration--Werner von Braun and his associates built and designed the first Saturn rockets there. Due to the top-secret level of the project, Huntsville grew out of Redstone Arsenal Army base--a major Army installation. The government took over the growth of the city and its surrounding vicinity. As a result, school desegregation met with few problems; integrated neighborhoods have always been common in both Huntsville and Decatur. Governor George C. Wallace stopped carrying North Alabama in 1970.

But that didn't stop the Ku Klux Klan from planting in fertile soil.

The KKK in North Alabama are members of the "integrated neighborhoods." Their children attend public, racially integrated schools. Some are old. Some are ministers. 5000 people attended the first Klan rally held after Hines' arrest. At that time, an 80-year-old Baptist minister told a reporter, "God will have a special place for the Ku Klux Klan in heaven." A black Huntsville minister brought the clipping of the quote to his church the following Sunday morning. "The Ku Klux Klan will have a special place in hell! That's fool talk! There's nothing worse than an old fool...I'm going to pray for this man and I ask you to pray for him, too," he told his congregation. That morning, following the service, the church received a bomb threat. On Labor Day weekend, another Klan meeting drew 9000 people.

While Klan forces built up over the summer, Tommy was ordered to undergo a mental competency test. As tensions built in anticipation of the trial, the SCLC held their national convention in Birmingham (only one and one-half hours south of Decatur) during the week of August 18. The delegates to the convention hopped on chartered busses to Decatur to march from the church to the courthouse. With the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, the members of both groups were not allowed on courthouse property. The marchers stood around the property, swaying from side to side, singing their songs of protest while the Klan, cloaked in their white robes and hoods, taunted, called names and distributed membership information to white passersby.

IN THE FIRST WEEK of September, Mims asked the court for a change of venue because of substantial publicity in both Morgan County and Huntsville's Madison County. The judge agreed, but he chose Cullman County as "the nearest adjacent county without prejudice." Less than 1% of the total voting population is black in Cullman County. Because of hiring practices, the small city of Cullman has historically kept blacks out. This, then, would be the "unprejudiced" site of Tommy Lee Hines' trial.

On October 1, the Sunday night before the trial date in Cullman, approximately 25 blacks marched from Decatur to Cullman--a 35-mile journey--while 3,000 whites stood on the side of the road, teasing and shouting obscenities. Although no one was physically hurt in the short exchange of words that occurred, the ugly tone was set.

The trial, which lasted 9 full court days, involved the first rape. Mims' assistant, a lawyer from the NAACP, George E. Hairston of New York, came into a head-on confrontation with Cullman County Judge Jack Riley. Judge Riley told Hairston at one point in the trial, "We may yet have to send you to law school." At times during the trial, Riley would order Hairston to remained confined to his seat and not move. Riley also overruled every objection that Mims and Hairston made, and had the jury under a suppression motion--meaning that the all-white jury received information from the judge. Mims raised a case tried in another court in Georgia where the defendent had an IQ of 61 and the court ruled the aptitude was too low for the defendent to determine the waiver of his rights after his arrest. Hines has an IQ of 39. The judge overruled Mims' point. The rape victim--who weighs over 200 pounds to Hines' 120--said the assailant wore a sock over his face. The jury found Hines guilty and the judge sentenced him to 30 years imprisonment. Hines grinned as the cameras flashed.

THE CASE is due to begin appeal after the mandatory 30-day wait plus the two weeks for transcripts. The move now is to try to prove that Hines' was incapable of waiving his rights at the time of his arrest. Mims is attempting to obtain changes of venue for the other trials--the rape and robbery of mid-March and the rape of May 10--but state law requires that once a change of venue has been requested and honored the case cannot be moved again.

In the last two rapes the assailant drove a car--one was a stick-shift--returned the woman to her home, backed the car up and abandoned it. Steve Wynn, who helped put up Hines' bond, said "He can't even steer a bicycle."

The SCLC and KKK are still in Decatur. The day after Hines' sentencing, 19 blacks marched in protest. Mims said Cottonreader's leadership may have turned people away; Cottonreader commented that "God had a reason for picking Tommy Hines." SCLC President Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery arrived in Decatur last night, his second visit. KKK Imperial Wizard Bill Wilkenson will be in nearby Guntersville tonight.

Tommy Lee Hines is unaware of the publicity around him. The Hines family wants the ordeal to be over. Tommy doesn't speak much anymore. He just stares and grins.

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