The trooper, James Bonard Fowler of Black, pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree manslaughter. He had been charged with two counts of murder in the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson during a melee in a restaurant in Marion in 1965.
Circuit Judge Tommy Jones sentenced Fowler to six months in prison and six months of unsupervised probation. Jones agreed with a defense request that Fowler serve his sentence in Geneva County, close to his home.
Fowler told The Star during a 2004 interview that he shot Jackson. It was his first public admission, but he also insisted he shot in self-defense.
Fowler was indicted in 2007 by a Perry County grand jury, but the trial was delayed by a number of motions and appeals brought forward by the district attorney for the circuit, Michael Jackson.
During the sentencing, the judge asked Fowler if he had anything to say.
Fowler, addressing several members of the family of Jimmie Lee Jackson, said, “I want to apologize to the Jackson family. I came over here to save lives, not take one.”
Afterward Emma Jean Jackson, Jimmie Lee’s sister, said she was mostly satisfied with the plea.
“This is closure for the family,” she said. “That’s the most important thing, and I think it is what he would have wanted. His birthday is coming up soon, and I really think this would be Jimmie’s best birthday present ever.”
Fowler, 77, refused comment to The Star, but his attorney, George Beck, said Fowler was growing old and is in poor health.
“He wants to put this behind him,” Beck said, adding that Fowler was sincere in his apology.
“He is truly sorry,” Beck said. “He meant it. Now, I believe this puts to rest a long chapter of civil rights history in Perry County.”
District Attorney Michael Jackson, who is not related to the victim, said he was satisfied in the outcome.
“We think it was a fair resolution,” he said. “I’m satisfied, but I’m not satisfied that we cannot bring Jimmie Lee Jackson back.”
Michael Jackson added that he asked for input from the Jackson family and that they agreed with his decision to offer the plea.
Jackson added that he was also concerned about Fowler’s age and his health and that time was running out.
“Well, one thing was, I didn’t want him to die before justice was done,” said Jackson.
“But we got the three things we really wanted,” he added. “He apologized, he pled guilty and he is going to serve time.”
Doug Jones, the former federal prosecutor who in 2001 and 2002 brought cases against two former Ku Klux Klansmen for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church, said the plea was “probably something everyone could live with,” given the difficulty of trying a 45-year-old case.
“This was going to be a very difficult case for both the prosecution and the defense, so I’m not surprised with this plea,” he said. “The significance of this is that it ended with a guilty plea. This allows us to get past it, for the community to move on.
“This demonstrates to me the importance of trying to get these cases resolved,” Jones continued. “It should stir people to look even more closely at these old civil rights-era cases.”
Jackson was shot in Mack’s Cafe just off the town square in Marion during a rare nighttime protest on Feb. 18, 1965. Minutes into the peaceful march, law-enforcement officials waded into the crowd, injuring several people. During the ensuing violence, several troopers entered the café, where a melee broke out.
History books say a trooper shot Jackson without provocation. Fowler has always maintained he shot Jackson in self-defense, when Jackson was trying to take his handgun from him.
Historians have long said that Jackson’s death was significant in that it provided a catalyst for the Selma-to-Montgomery March, an event that helped lead to the Voting Rights Act.