In the early 1990s, Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., wrote a letter to the State Department regarding James B. Fowler, who was at the time imprisoned in Thailand on narcotics charges.
McCain's State Department letter was dated Nov. 15, 1991. It briefly explains Fowler's situation and asks Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Tamposi of the Office of Consular Affairs to look into his case.
In 2005, The Star published an interview with James B. Fowler who admitted publicly for the first time that he shot Jimmie Lee Jackson during a melee in February 1965 in the west Alabama town of Marion. Fowler insisted it was in self defense.
Jackson's death a few days after the shooting proved pivotal for organizers of the civil rights movement, leading indirectly to the Selma-to-Montgomery march and, many historians argue, the passage by Congress of the landmark Voting Rights Act in August 1965.
Fowler, whose trial was scheduled to start this month until a judge delayed it Monday, has a complex and varied background. He fought in the Vietnam War, he has said, to avenge his brother's death. He later worked with military prosecutors to expose a murder-for-hire plot in Southeast Asia. He raised a family in Thailand and in Alabama, and for about five years in the early 1990s, he was in a Thai prison cell after being arrested for heroin trafficking.
It was during this time that John McCain came into his life.
"There are several requests I would like to make on behalf of Mr. Fowler within existing statutes and regulations," McCain writes in the letter to Tamposi.
McCain goes on to say that he would like to know the status of the case and the action taken by the State Department on his behalf, that he wanted officials to look into the circumstances surrounding Fowler's arrest and to take steps to see that his rights are protected and to look into the conditions in which he is imprisoned.
McCain also requested that the State Department look into Fowler's claims that "his arrest was the product of a vendetta by a well-connected former member of the U.S. Army and advise me of its validity."
Indeed, others agreed that Fowler's work with military prosecutors had earned him enemies in Southeast Asia and may have led to his arrest in Bangkok in 1991.
In another letter dated Nov. 10, 1991, Army Maj. Jeffery Addicott, the chief prosecutor in the murder-for-hire plot, wrote to vouch for Fowler's character and suggested he may have been framed for heroin trafficking by those he testified against.
"When witnesses testify against criminals," Addicott wrote, "there is always the possibility that the criminal will try to 'get even' with the witness who testified against him. This may have been the case with Mr. Fowler and deserves close attention by competent authorities."
Addicott added that after the trial he cautioned Fowler to be careful and that there were people who would do him harm and that Addicott himself was concerned for his own safety.
"In my mind," Addicott wrote, "I would point out that there is a real possibility that Mr. Fowler may have been framed or set up by others who seek to do harm to him."
Robert Fischer, a press spokesman for McCain's Senate office in Washington, said files in his office do not go back to 1991, so he was not able to find additional correspondence involving the case, but added that "it is our policy not to comment on cases such as this."
A McCain campaign press official in the regional office in Florida said Monday that the office's spokesman was traveling with the vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and was not available to comment on the story. A press official at McCain's headquarters press office in northern Virginia said that office only dealt with the national press and therefore could not provide comment to a regional publication.
Mickey Baine, a friend of Fowler's, said he spoke to McCain directly in the early 1990s.
"When I talked to him, he assured me he was looking into it, that he was working on it and checking with the State Department," said Baine, a veterinarian from south Alabama.
McCain, it turned out, had been approached by a mutual friend, a retired veterinarian named Jake Purvis in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
Purvis, who had been contacted by Baine about Fowler, says he has known McCain for years, that they "used to eat crabs and oysters together," in northwest Florida. Purvis said he mentioned the case to McCain, but that he had spoken in detail about Fowler to the senator's office staff.
It is difficult to know if McCain's intervention had any impact on Fowler's eventual release from prison in late 1996.
Fowler's Montgomery attorney George Beck would not elaborate on Fowler's background, saying only that, "I have no reason to disagree with anything that the Army prosecutor wrote in the letter you are referring to."
It isn't unusual for members of Congress to write letters on behalf of U.S. citizens imprisoned abroad. In one case in July 2000, for example, dozens of senators signed a letter to President Bill Clinton urging him to pressure the Peruvian government to release Lori Berenson, a U.S. citizen who was convicted by a secret military tribunal and is still being held on charges of treason there.