MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A former Alabama state trooper who recently pleaded guilty to the civil rights-era killing of a black man says he fears he could be attacked by other inmates after he begins his jail sentence on Wednesday.
James Bonard Fowler's plea deal allows the 77-year-old white man to serve his six-month sentence near his home in Geneva County, rather than in predominantly black Perry County, where his victim is memorialized as a martyr of the civil rights movement.
"They'd have killed me," Fowler said, referring to what he thinks would have happened in the Perry County jail.
But being in the Geneva County Jail doesn't ease his mind.
"I don't feel safe here either. There are more blacks in the jail than whites," he said in an interview Monday.
Fowler is going to jail for fatally shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson on Feb. 18, 1965, after a voting rights march in Marion erupted in violence. Witnesses said Jackson, 26, was trying to protect his grandfather and mother from being clubbed by state troopers. But Fowler maintained Jackson hit him on the head with a bottle and he fired to protect himself.
The shooting helped galvanize the civil rights movement. It inspired another march in Alabama that was part of a series of protests that prompted Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Tony Helms, chief deputy for Geneva County, said safety is a concern for any incarcerated former law enforcement officer, but that his jail has safely housed former officers before.
The jail will assess Fowler upon his arrival, and he could be placed in one of its private cells for high-risk inmates or in the low-risk area, which is more like a dormitory.
Helms said the jail in southeast Alabama normally holds 60 to 70 inmates, and they will be checked to make sure none is an enemy of the former trooper. But he doubts that will be a problem.
"I don't think anybody here would have anything against him," Helms said Tuesday.
No charges were brought against Fowler until Perry County's first black district attorney reopened the case and got a murder indictment against him in 2007. The former trooper pleaded guilty Nov. 15 to a reduced misdemeanor charge of second-degee manslaughter. He apologized to the victim's family and agreed to spend six months in jail, followed by six months on probation.
He said he took the plea deal because his trial judge wouldn't move the case from Perry County, and he didn't believe he could get a fair trial in the west Alabama county. He said he spent more than $100,000 on his legal defense and sold farmland and cattle to pay the bills.
"It broke me," he said.
Jackson was one of two black men killed by Fowler during his tenure as a trooper. He said both shootings were self-defense. But the FBI recently said its investigation of his 1966 shooting of Nathan Johnson in Alabaster remains open as part of its review of old cases from the civil rights era.
As Fowler prepared for jail, he said his goal is to serve his sentence quietly and then resume his life on his small farm.
"I'm not going to cause any trouble," he said.