1965 shooting shows pitfalls of closing old cases
PELAHATCHIE, Miss. (AP) — On a late-fall evening 46 years ago, gunfire shattered the revelry at a nameless juke joint in this rural crossroads. When the smoke cleared, Joseph Robert McNair, a black father of six, lay at the feet of the community’s white constable.
That McNair was dead, and that Luther Steverson had killed him are about the only details on which folks around here agree.
Five months ago, the U.S. Department of Justice — which has been looking into scores of civil rights-era deaths — closed a reinvestigation of McNair’s shooting and informed family members that there was nothing to prosecute. But The Associated Press has found a number of people whose eyewitness accounts conflict with the official finding that Steverson fired just once in self-defense.
In response, the FBI made some more inquiries, but the agency insists that the witness accounts it has are “irreconcilably inconsistent,” and that the case remains unprosecutable. Local authorities, saying they trust the bureau’s judgment, consider the case closed.
But it’s far from solved, say others, including McNair’s three surviving children.
In their minds, crucial questions — such as exactly where McNair was hit, and by how many bullets — remain unresolved. The only way to reconcile the conflicting stories, they agree, would be to exhume the body.
“I would like to know,” says Patsy Morrow-Whitfield, who was just 10 when neighbors led her and her siblings to the field where her stepfather lay. Still, she added, “It’s almost moot to me. Because the people that would get the great satisfaction out of this, other than my brother there and me and my sister, has already passed.”
The dispute over McNair’s death illustrates the challenges — and high stakes — of seeking the truth so long after the fact.
McNair’s was one of 124 civil rights-era deaths that the Justice Department has reviewed since launching its “Cold Case Initiative” in 2006. Congress turned up the heat in 2007 with the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, setting aside millions of dollars “to ensure timely and thorough investigations in the cases involved.”
His case was among more than six dozen the Southern Poverty Law Center referred to the DOJ in Febrary 2007.
Steverson shot McNair on Nov. 6, 1965, as he said he was attempting to serve a warrant on the 27-year-old laborer for nonsupport of his and his wife Myrtle’s six children.
In a recent phone interview, the 84-year-old Steverson, who lives in nearby Pearl, told the AP that he had driven out to Pelahatchie — about 20 miles east of the state capital of Jackson — with town Marshal Cooper Stingley and Night Marshal Pat Wade to serve his warrant. He said he was riding in the back seat, the warrant in his shirt pocket and his .38-caliber service revolver in its holster on the seat beside him, when they came across McNair at the juke joint off Highway 80.
“I jumped out,” the former constable said. “And I didn’t have time to grab my regular service gun.”
Steverson said he pulled out his “safety piece” — a two-shot, .22 Magnum derringer — and ran after McNair. When he caught up with him in a field of waist-high grass, he said, McNair wheeled and knocked him down.
“He said, ‘You’ve tried to kill me. I’m going to kill you,’” Steverson said. “And he started down on me. It looked like he had a knife. Of course, I was laying on my back trying to get up, had the gun in my hand and I shot him.”
He said the bullet struck McNair square in the chest.
“It blowed him backwards,” Steverson said.
He and the others searched for a knife, he said, but never found one.
Soon afterward, Steverson was cleared in a hearing before a justice of the peace.
In late May of this year, the case became one of about 80 officially closed by the Justice Department following reconsideration.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
“After careful review of this incident, we have concluded that the federal government cannot now bring a prosecution against the officer,” Paige M. Fitzgerald, deputy chief in charge of the cold-case effort, wrote in a letter to McNair’s family. “Again, please accept our sincere condolences.”
But after obtaining a copy of the FBI letter through a Freedom of Information Act request, the AP went in search of potential witnesses. Reporters located six people who say they were present when the shooting occurred, or in its immediate aftermath, and who dispute Steverson’s version of events.
While varying in some significant details, their accounts converge on some key points: Two say they saw McNair fleeing, not lunging, and at least four remember hearing multiple gunshots, not one.
“That man was shot down in the back like a damn dog!” Connie Harris, 63, told the AP in a late October telephone interview from her home in Pelahatchie. “I’m not telling you what people say; I’m telling you what my two eyes seen.”
Harris, who was 14 at the time, said she and some friends were on their way to the high school for a “record hop” when she saw Steverson and McNair, both of whom she knew.
“Why you doing this? I ain’t did nothing,” she remembered McNair saying. When his pleading did no good, she said, McNair “broke out running.”
Harris said Steverson fired two shots, and McNair “fell on his face.”
Annie Hoard, 62, who was with Harris, said she also heard McNair pleading, then heard two distinct gunshots — though she did not see the shots fired.
John Lee Hoard, 72, described a different perspective. He and McNair were drinking at the bar, he said, when Steverson arrived and told McNair that he was under arrest.
“Joseph told him he hadn’t did nothing,” Hoard, McNair’s third cousin and Annie Hoard’s brother, told the AP in a telephone interview.
John Hoard said McNair ran out the back door, with Steverson in pursuit. He said he saw the constable fire at McNair’s back, then watched his cousin fall.
The FBI said it had interviewed “no less than 11 civilian witnesses” before its initial decision to close the case. None of the people the AP found and spoke with had been contacted by agents.
In its letter, the FBI told the family that it had located one person who claimed to have been there that evening. That man, who was not identified, told agents that he heard two gunshots.
These accounts echo a contemporary report located by the AP in the files of Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the organization through which the state spied on its own citizens as part of its effort to resist desegregation.
According to the 1965 memo, outlining an unnamed informant’s statement to the commission, a witness said Steverson “shot McNair once in the back, and then in the head as he was lying on the ground.” The informant said the FBI was investigating. But the letter to the family said agents had been unable to locate a file on the decades-old case.
During the reinvestigation, Steverson told agents that he had been “charged, tried and acquitted of murder,” which, if true, would mean he couldn’t be retried on the state level. But the FBI told the family it could find no public records or news reports of any formal charges.
In a local library, The AP found documentation of a coroner’s inquest and a justice of the peace hearing, however. In a Nov. 8, 1965, article, the AP quoted Jackson funeral home director Fred Banks, who was black, as saying that McNair “was shot in the front only. Two inches down from the collar-bone and slightly to the left of center.”
Banks’ son Karl, now a county supervisor, said his late father would not have been intimidated despite the charged racial atmosphere of the time. “He would have called it just like he saw it.”
The late Coroner Dempsey T. Amacker, who was white, said the same thing as Fred Banks during a hearing before Justice of the Peace Walter Ratcliff the following week. Public records of the hearing are unavailable and may have been destroyed, local officials said.
“J.P. Court Here Rules ‘Justifiable Homicide’ in Shooting of Negro,” read the headline in the Nov. 11, 1965, edition of the weekly Rankin County News.
The hearing concluded that no crime had occurred. But conviction after conviction in these old cases has proven that such results cannot always be taken at face value, said historian David T. Beito.
“There are certainly many examples that you could point to in Mississippi in that period of deception by authorities, of authorities circling the wagons to protect each other,” said Beito, a professor at the University of Alabama.
But an attempt to weigh the evidence today, as the FBI did, presents its own obstacles.
The two other officers who were with Steverson that night are dead. Those who say they witnessed the gunfire, most of whom have lived in this rural community all of their lives, vary in some notable details about what the shooting scene revealed.
Harris said she walked right up to the body and saw two bullet holes in McNair’s back. But both Annie Hoard and a fourth person who was at the juke joint, Dorothy McNair, 66, recalled seeing a hole in McNair’s forehead.
“He was shot in the hand,” said Dorothy McNair, also a cousin of the dead man. “He might have throwed his hand up to keep him from shooting him in the head.”
When she reached him, Morrow-Whitfield said her stepfather was lying on his back. She saw only the hole in his chest.
“It wasn’t bleeding or anything,” she said. “There was like a little circle around it.”
But she and her sister, Katherine McIntyre-Lee, are adamant that they heard more than one shot. “That’s one thing I do vividly remember,” Morrow-Whitfield said. “I was thinking that it was firecrackers.”
FBI officials have hinted that the death certificate would support Steverson’s version of events. The AP has not yet been able to obtain a copy from the agency or others.
But Beito, the historian, said doubts would not be dispelled even if the document backed up the single-shot, self-defense finding.
“That wouldn’t be enough in and of itself. I’d need much more than that,” said Beito, whose writing on civil rights history includes research on the lynching of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy whose 1955 slaying in Mississippi helped spark the modern civil rights movement. In 2005, authorities opened his grave and performed an autopsy to quell doubts that the body inside the glass-topped coffin was really that of Till.
But McNair wasn’t a visitor from the North or, as with other deaths at the time, a civil rights activist plucked from a jail cell. Those who felt they knew the truth in his case were too frightened to speak up in 1965.
“I wasn’t going to get shot,” John Lee Hoard told the AP. “Back then, a colored man had no chance around here.”
But times have changed, and they are willing to speak now.
When first contacted by the AP, Harris said, “I would sit up in the biggest church, the biggest courtroom, the biggest jailhouse, and repeat it over and over.”
She permitted the AP to pass along her contact information to the FBI. But after the bureau spoke to her, she declined a request for a follow-up interview. “I can’t talk to you all,” she said. “I just said the same thing I said to you.”
The FBI said the information obtained in that and several other interviews “does not change our conclusion that this matter is not prosecutable.
“Rather, these recent interviews revealed accounts that are materially and irreconcilably inconsistent,” the agency said in a statement to the AP.
In several cases where federal charges were ruled out, the FBI has turned over findings to local officials for possible state prosecution.
Rankin County District Attorney Michael Guest said he wasn’t aware there was a cold-case probe in his jurisdiction until contacted by the AP. The FBI insists it had contacted his office. In any event, agents did call Guest following the AP’s inquiries and discussed the bureau’s findings for half an hour, said Heath Hall, Guest’s spokesman.
“We trust the FBI and the Department of Justice…,” Hall told the AP. “I’m telling you that this case is closed. Period.”
For his part, Steverson told the AP he was never worried. When the agents who visited his home asked if he still had the gun with which he shot McNair, he said he produced the derringer and even let agents photograph it.
Regardless of what some witnesses have claimed, he said his conscience is clear.
“I know what happened,” he said. “It was a necessary thing. If it had been my brother, I would have had to done the same thing.”
McNair’s stepdaughter, Morrow-Whitfield, said her mother never got over the killing. Still, she wonders if pursuing the case is even worth it.
“It would be like an empty victory, you know,” she said. Steverson “has lived his life. He’s an old man now. And all it is, is going to be just facts.”
Mohr reported from Pelahatchie. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org.