Sunday, March 23, 2008

Fingerprint expert who played key role in Medgar Evers assasination investigation dead at 88

Today's Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger has a feature on Ralph Hargrove Sr., a Jackson police fingerprint expert who died at age 88:

But the people of Jackson - and the people of Mississippi - should remember Ralph Hargrove Sr. for one simple fact - he was a white cop who did his duty in trying to bring a white racist to justice for the murder of a black civil rights leader in 1963.

Doing so wasn't easy and wasn't popular, but it was right. People who knew him said Hargrove was nobody's big-bellied, tobacco-chewing stereotype of a Southern lawman. They said he was a stand-up guy with courage and a conscience.

W.C. "Dub" Shoemaker, now a retired newspaper publisher in Kosciusko, reminded me this week of Hargrove's quiet courage. In 1963, Shoemaker was a reporter covering the police beat and civil rights stories for The Jackson Daily News in those difficult days.

One of the stories that Shoemaker covered was the assassination of NAACP Field Director Medgar Evers in his Jackson home on the night of June 12, 1963.

Shoemaker recalled how then-JPD Capt. Hargrove and Detective John Chamblee dutifully, doggedly worked the Evers crime scene looking for evidence.

Chamblee and Hargrove's investigation led them to discover a 1918 .3 0/06 Enfield rifle with a Goldenhawk six-power telescopic sight hidden in a clump of honeysuckle vines across Guynes Street from the Evers home.

From the scope of that Enfield rifle, Hargrove was eventually able to lift a "fresh" index fingerprint. The print was eventually matched in the FBI lab in Washington to the military records of Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist and erstwhile fertilizer salesman.

Hargrove's evidence led to unsuccessful 1964 prosecutions of Beckwith that ended in mistrials. But in 1994, new evidence emerged that resulted in a third trial of Beckwith.

This time, Beckwith was convicted of Evers' murder and would spend the rest of his life in a Mississippi prison. He died in 2001 at the age of 80.

At the time of Beckwith's conviction, prosecutors praised Hargrove, saying that the judicial process was indebted to people like Hargrove, who in retirement had kept the negatives of most of the pictures used as evidence in the first trial and again cooperated.

A lot of dominoes had to fall for Beckwith to ultimately pay for his crimes. But without this honest cop's diligence, the key link to Beckwith might have been lost to intolerance and indifference.

Rest well, Capt. Hargrove.

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