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COLUMN ONE : Time Dulls Rage Over '62 Murder : A Central Valley town rallied against previous bids to parole a man convicted of killing a teen-ager with her sewing shears. But Hanford isn't so tiny now--and violence is no longer a stranger.

July 29, 1993|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HANFORD, Calif. — Booker T. Hillery comes up for parole today, but there will be no communal protest from this century-old city amid the cotton fields and peach orchards of Kings County.

This fact is worth noting because the people of Hanford were not always silent on the matter. Every other time the question of parole arose, the town drew up in outrage. As recently as two years ago, thousands of citizens filled petitions demanding that Hillery remain locked up.

But Hanford is no longer the drowsy little farm town it was in 1962, when Hillery murdered 15-year-old Marlene Miller in a bloody act that most residents believed was impossible in the peaceful place they called home.

Steady growth has tripled the population to 33,000 in 30 years, and newcomers now vastly outnumber the aging generation who were touched by Hillery's brutal deed and vowed never to forget.

Along with this transformation has come another that is mirrored in many once-small California towns--a new sensibility about crime. The clean canvas that made Hillery's violence look and feel so shocking is quite splotched. Murder is no stranger anymore, and that, combined with the perpetual dose of mayhem delivered by television from nearby Fresno and the world beyond, has finally ended Hanford's rural innocence.

"Hillery used to be the bogyman incarnate here--the guy parents would tell their kids about when they were warning them about not talking to strangers," said Patrick Hart, a Kings County prosecutor. Now, he added, bogymen are everywhere, and Hanford's most fearsome villain simply does not stand out like before.

Marlene Miller was home alone the evening of March 21, 1962, sewing a new dress for her very first date. Stitching away, the high school sophomore did not hear the screen being pried off a bedroom window, nor the footsteps of the man creeping up behind her.

An honor student and 4-H Club member, Marlene scuffled with her attacker but lost. Dragged outside and hogtied, she was stabbed in the chest with her engraved sewing shears.

When Marlene's father--an irrigation ditch tender--and mother returned home from night school about 10 p.m., they found the iron hot and the television blaring. Corky MacFarlane, the Kings County sheriff's deputy on duty, found blood in the moonlit back yard, but Marlene's body did not turn up until daybreak.

"We lowered the water in the irrigation ditch behind the house," MacFarlane, now retired, said in an interview, "and there she was, with her cutoff Levi's ripped and one tennis shoe on."

Before long, investigators found a boot print, tire tracks and a pair of soggy milking gloves scattered down the road from the Miller place. These clues, plus a witness's description of a 1953 Plymouth parked near the family's home, pointed to a local dairy hand on parole for a rape conviction--Booker T. Hillery.

He insisted that he was innocent, that he had been singled out because of his race (African-American) and criminal history. A jury disagreed, convicting him of murder. He was sentenced to death.

Longtime residents say it is difficult to exaggerate the influences that Marlene's killing had on the community psyche of Hanford in 1962. Suddenly, children were not safe in their own homes. Suddenly, said June Barberick, owner of a local dry cleaners, people eyed strangers warily and began locking their doors.

"It was so heinous, this killing of a little girl, that it was somehow unbelievable," said Phil West, former principal at Hanford High School, where Marlene was enrolled. "The feeling was total shock."

Hanford's population was about 10,000 then, and "you knew everybody in town, or believed you did," said Mayor John Lehn, a native. "Kids rode their bikes everywhere," and until the murder, parents never worried.

Homicide and other violent crimes had been foreign concepts in Hanford, 30 miles from Fresno across the San Joaquin Valley. When killings occurred--there were three, plus Marlene's, in all of Kings County in 1962--they happened in the isolated camps of cotton pickers far from town.

"The only people dying (violently) then were laborers who'd get stabbed in a fight and then bleed to death before we got them to the hospital," MacFarlane said. The sheriff, he added, didn't even bother with night patrols until about the time of Marlene's death.

Against this bucolic backdrop, the murder was a mighty jolt. The fact that Hillery's case never seemed to reach a final conclusion, residents say, helped to sustain the anxious mood.

His death sentence was reversed and reimposed twice, and then in 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court threw out his conviction. Concluding that Hillery had been a victim of discrimination because blacks were purposely excluded from the grand jury that indicted him, the justices ordered that he be retried or set free.

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