MARION, Ala. – A white former state trooper pleaded guilty Monday to a lesser charge in the 1965 shooting death of a black man at a civil rights protest, a killing that inspired historic voting rights marches.
James Bonard Fowler, 77, entered the plea of misdemeanor second-degree manslaughter two weeks before he was scheduled to go to trial on a murder charge for the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Jackson's shooting in the city of Marion set off protests at nearby Selma that led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Fowler was sentenced to six months in jail in Geneva County, his home county.
Fowler was accused of shooting Jackson in a cafe as a protest march turned into a melee in Marion on the night of Feb. 18, 1965. Fowler claimed Jackson was trying to grab the trooper's gun and that he fired in self-defense.
District Attorney Michael Jackson, who in 2005 became the first black prosecutor elected in Marion County, reopened the case and took it before a county grand jury, which indicted Fowler on a murder charge in May 2007. Jackson, who died at a Selma hospital days after the shooting, is now honored in civil rights museums in Alabama as a martyr of the movement.
Fowler, who apologized to Jackson's family after entering the plea Monday, said he didn't mean to kill anyone that night in 1965.
"I was coming over here to save lives. I didn't mean to take lives. I wish I could redo it," he said.
Defense attorney George Beck said Fowler agreed to plead guilty to the reduced charge because he was concerned he couldn't get a fair trial in Perry County and his health is poor.
"He wants to put it behind him," he said. "It puts to rest a long chapter of civil rights history here in Perry County."
The district attorney recommended the plea to the family. He said he wanted Fowler to acknowledge what he did, apologize to the family and serve some time behind bars.
"This is almost like a death sentence for him at his age," he said.
But Jackson's daughter, Cordelia Billingsley, said, "This is supposed to be closure, but there will never be closure."
Fowler could have received a maximum sentence of one year. He will be on probation for six months after serving six months in jail.
Shortly after the shooting, federal and state grand juries conducted reviews and brought no charges. The new district attorney, however, reopened it, as have other federal and state prosecutors taking new looks at civil rights era violence in the South in recent years.