Saturday, March 12, 2011

FBI reopening investigation into 1965 murder of minister in Selma

The FBI is reopening the investigation into the 1965 beating death of Unitarian minister James Reeb in Selma, Ala.:

In 1965, three men — Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle and Namon O’Neal Hoggle — were tried for murder, but the all-white jury acquitted the trio, despite testimony identifying the attackers.

A fourth man indicted, R.B. Kelley, was never prosecuted. He gave authorities the names of those he said attacked the ministers.

He denied playing a role himself, but police found a club in his car, according to FBI records.

At least one of those men, Namon O’Neal ‘Duck’ Hoggle, is alive.

Decades later, questions remain about the fairness of the trial. One juror, Harry Vardaman, was the brother of a key defense witness, Ben Vardaman. During jury selection, the judge refused to dismiss two white potential jurors who admitted they despised white civil rights workers for sharing meals with black Southerners.

All 13 black potential jurors were struck from the panel, causing the jury to be all white.

During the trial, defense lawyer Joe Pilcher suggested to jurors that “certain civil rights groups have to have a martyr, and they were willing to let Reeb die.”

In March 1965, Reeb, 38, traveled to Alabama in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s invitation to ministers to join the Selma to Montgomery March. So did his friends and fellow Unitarian ministers, Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller.

On the night of March 9, the three white ministers had just finished dinner in downtown Selma at Walker’s Cafe, a historically black restaurant that had also opened its doors to white patrons.

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