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32 Years to Justice

by Sandra Peters


A dissonant mix of 1998 technology and a 1950s Mississippi courtroom was the stage for the fifth trial of Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers for ordering the 1966 murder of civil-rights activist Vernon Dahmer.

The streets surrounding the Forrest County Courthouse in Hattiesburg, Miss., were barricaded as the trial began Aug. 17, 1998. Demonstrations were promised by the Georgia-based contingent of the Aryan Nation, so armed police were stationed on the tops of adjoining buildings and at the courtroom doors. Television satellite transmitters blocked nearby roads. Police used handheld metal detectors to screen those entering the courtroom.

Inside, the courtroom looked much as it had for Mr. Bowers’ first four trials, all of which occurred in the 1960 s without finding him guilty. The windowless, wood-paneled courtroom was complete with large light globes and wooden ceiling fans hanging above the second-story balcony. Large chips of green paint were peeling away from the ceiling.

The summer heat began its journey toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit as jury selection began with the judge instructing potential jurors and attorneys questioning them. Those chosen would be led to the jurors’ box and readied to serve.

Hattiesburg spectators whispered that defense-counsel attorneys were known to be Klan members. Travis Buckley, lead defense attorney, had been named in the original indictments in the Dahmer murder.

Mr. Bowers sat in a jury chair, leaning back sipping a cup of coffee. A small, aging man, he glared at potential jurors studying their faces as the defense counsel attempted to remove all black potential jurors and challenged removal of white potential jurors by the state prosecutors. After attempts to maintain a predominately white jury, the defense ran out of challenges to try to exclude blacks. The final jury numbered five blacks, six whites and one Asian.

As the trial began, a segment of the racist history of Mississippi was about to be revealed.

Background

Vernon Dahmer, a father, businessman, voting-rights activists, and beloved friend and member of the black community of Hattiesburg’s Kelly Settlement was murdered Jan. 10, 1966 -- the day after he announced his black neighbors could pay their poll tax at his store. The Dahmer home was firebombed during the early morning hours by three carloads of Klansmen who pushed into the house igniting 12 one-gallon containers of gasoline. The house and adjacent store burned to the ground. The back of the store was home to an elderly aunt.

Vernon and Ellie Dahmer and their youngest two children, Bettie and Dennis, were awakened by the smoke and gunshots. The Dahmers’ four older sons were serving their country in the military.

Ellie Dahmer, the children and the aunt escaped the fire, but Vernon Dahmer died just 12 hours later from smoke inhalation and burns.

Mr. Bowers and 13 others were arrested on murder and arson charges. Three were sentenced to life terms but each served less than 10 years. Another man sentenced to 10 years for arson served two. Mr. Bowers was not convicted in connection with Mr. Dahmer’s death but served six years in prison for his role in the 1964 killing of civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

In four previous trails, deadlocked juries could not agree on Mr. Bowers’ guilt in Vernon Dahmer’s murder so judges ordered mistrials. Mr. Bowers left those courtrooms a free man.

For the 33 years since Mr. Dahmer’s murder, Sam Bowers had continued to live in Laurel, Miss., a town 20 miles north of Hattiesburg where he ran a truck stop called Sambo’s. He was single.

The 1998 trial

The Dahmer case was reopened when, at the Dahmers’ prompting, District Attorney Lindsay Carter, elected in 1995, uncovered new evidence that indicated jury tampering in Bowers’ earlier trials. Bowers was arrested May 2, 1998, on the old indictment leading to the August 1998 trial.

When the 1998 trial opened, Ellie Dahmer was the first to testify. She spoke of the night of horror. She spoke of the last words of her husband recalling that he called out for her by his nickname for her -- Jewell.

She relived the 33-year-old moments of terror explaining that her family, who had feared harassment for their civil-rights stands and actions, finally decided they no longer had to sleep in shifts. They thought it was safe.

But as Mrs. Dahmer woke to piercing gunshots and the smell of smoke filling her nostrils, she feared that night was the end for them all. As Vernon Dahmer got his rifle to ward off the attackers, she gathered the children. She struggled to open the window to lift the children out. Having helped his wife and children to safety, Mr. Dahmer stayed to defend his home and family.

Bettie Dahmer, the youngest child and only girl, testified next. She was 10 the night her father was killed.

Her anger was intense as Mr. Buckley attempted to get her to admit nothing could be done now to change history.

"Something could have been done," she said. "They didn’t have to kill my father."

She told the court her last memory of that night was of her father’s burnt flesh falling from his arms.

The youngest boy, Dennis, 12 the night of the fire, cried as he shared a lifetime memory of anger. His voice cracked through tears as he described trying to see through the night to the carloads of men driving off after the attack -- the car

crippled by a tire flattened by a bullet.

Ballistic experts testified the bullet came from a gun that belonged to Billy Roy Pitts. Mr. Pitts was the state’s star witness. He testified he was a Klansman whose conscience, forced him to turn against the violence of the Klan. His brother, a pastor, got him to see the error of his ways, he said.

The government promised him freedom for testifying against Mr. Bowers.

Though a bullet from Mr. Pitts’ gun blew out the car tire, experts showed it had never been fired. Heat from the burning house was so intense, it caused the gun to explode as it laid on the front lawn.

Mr. Pitts was among a series of aging Klansmen paraded to the witness box. Some, fearful of retaliation, were unwilling to reveal their current addresses as they testified against Mr. Bowers, the man who had controlled and instructed their lives for so many years. They testified it was Mr. Bowers who organized, commanded and planned the Dahmer firebombing and murder.

Others spoke of Mr. Bowers as a good citizen, a neighbor and friend, incapable of such an act. They said he was a Sunday-school teacher.

Throughout it all, Mr. Bowers’ authority as the leader of Mississippi’s Klan was never questioned.

As Imperial Wizard of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Mr. Bowers was the only one in the hierarchy of the order with authority to command firebombings and killings.

Such orders were given in secret code: "1" was for a cross burning, "2" a whipping, "3" a firebombing and "4" a killing.

Other testimony

After testifying, Ellie Dahmer sat in the balcony, which was the best place to see the witnesses and watch the jury. She was motionless as Mr. Pitts described the details of planning her husband’s murder.

She listened so intensely, I asked if she had heard this account before. Her answer was "No."

Deavours Nix, the lead defense witness, was called to the stand in an effort to discredit Mr. Pitts’ testimony and to be a character witness for Mr. Bowers. He spoke of Sam Bowers’ kindness saying Mr. Bowers was incapable of ordering the murder. Mr. Nix died two weeks after the trial ended.

The impact of Mr. Nix’s testimony was not as expected by Mr. Bowers’ attorneys. The courtroom’s quiet was interrupted first by sighs, then giggles and eventually nervous laughter as Mr. Nix answered a series of questions from the prosecutor about Mississippi’s White Knights of the Klan. When asked by the prosecuting attorneys the requirements to be a Klansman, Mr. Nix responded, "One just needed to believe in God."

When asked why he joined the Klan, Mr. Nix said he joined because it was "a benevolent organization that gave fruit baskets and money to the poor at Christmas time."

When asked what provisions or apparatus were present at his swearing in as a Klan member, Mr. Nix said he remembered a Bible opened to Romans 12 and a cross. When he was asked about dressing in sheets, he said he knew nothing about ceremonial sheets, then added that maybe once he had seen a sheet wrapped around a member, but it didn’t mean anything.

Mr. Nix’s daughter, Judy Graham, a school counselor in a predominately black school district in a neighboring town, was asked to explain a picture of her father dressed in a Klan robe holding a gun. The picture was not her father, she said. It was a picture of her brother, dressed for Halloween, she said. When the FBI found the picture in Mr. Nix’s bedroom last February, his former wife had said it was of him in his Klan robes. Ms. Graham testified her mother "gets confused."

Mr. Bowers’ supporters showed up every day of the trial. Local folks said it was so they could stare at the one white male juror in an attempt to intimidate him. The Dahmers said they recognized one of the spectators as a juror in one of the previous hung-jury dismissals. They believed he had been the holdout on that jury.

The orderliness of the courtroom was preserved in spite of attempts to disrupt it. For example, Circuit Judge Richard McKinsey stopped the proceedings and removed the jurors from the courtroom when Richard Barrett, a self-proclaimed white supremacist and an attorney from Laurel, Miss., made his way past police guards and began distributing flyers announcing Vernon Dahmer was an enemy of the country. Judge McKinsey called Mr. Barrett before the bench then had him removed from the courtroom with the option of being jailed or leaving town and not returning for the duration of the trial.

Had it not been for the Mr. McKinsey’s action, a mistrial could have once again curtailed the long-awaited trial.

The verdict

On the morning of the fifth day, summations were given by the two lead attorneys -- first by the state and then by Mr. Bowers’ attorney. The jury left the courtroom at 10:01 a.m. to begin their deliberation.

Just before 1 p.m., as the Dahmers were eating lunch in a chamber off the courtroom, word came that the jury was returning.

In a precise line, they walked swiftly upstairs to the balcony. They seemed to walk as a unit, connected by 33 years of combined faith that this day would come to mark the end of their family’s struggle for justice.

Mr. Bowers had spent that morning writing page after page of notes on a legal pad. Just before the verdict was read, he passed the pages to a colleague, the Rev. Shawn O’Hare, who had spent every day by his side.

Then, before the verdict was read, Mr. Bowers began emptying his pockets. The judge cautioned spectators that if there were any outburst, he would impose a contempt-of-court order.

The verdict was read. Sam Bowers was guilty of conspiracy to commit the murder of Vernon Dahmer.

Everyone in courtroom heeded the judge’s warning of contempt charges. Emotions found silent expression.

The judge told Mr. Bowers to come before the bench. He received a mandatory life sentence. Mr. Bowers had nothing to say when the time for a statement was offered. Court officers took him through a door in the back of the courtroom.

Justice for the Dahmers

In that moment, 33 years of waiting was over for the Dahmers.

As the verdict was read, Ellie Dahmer let her fist pound onto the railing of the balcony. Her whole body seemed to collapse from the weight of releasing the tension of the years. Bettie Dahmer’s eyes filled with tears.

Vernon and Dennis Dahmer reacted stoically letting out silent sighs until they could reach their mother’s arms and embrace one another. Friends joined in. Even the prosecutors ran up to the balcony to join the subdued celebration.

No one in this group noticed where Mr. Bowers’ supporters went. They were just no longer there.

With elegance, the determined Dahmer family, now exhausted and exhilarated, walked down the stairs, out the back door of the courthouse. The press was waiting.


Sandra Peters is a consultant to the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries working with the task force on Ministries in the Midst of Hate and Violence.