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Son's Questions in 1964 Killing Find Keys in Unquiet Minds



Last in an occasional series

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- His mother bled to death in the back of the ambulance during the long ride to the hospital that accepted blacks. She was the mother of 10, and he was her baby, just 4 months old.

The city was aflame with race riots that night in 1964, but Johnnie Mae Chappell was not out setting fires. She had gone for ice cream for her family. She was in front of the Banner Food Market on New Kings Road when four white men in a dark blue Plymouth drove past. One of them shot her in the abdomen.

"Mister police officer," she told the white policeman who was first at the scene, "I'm going to die."

By year's end, four men were arrested and charged in her death, and three of them confessed. But only one was tried, and he was convicted of a reduced charge of manslaughter when jurors concluded it was a joy ride by young toughs and the gun had gone off accidentally. He served three years in prison.

Criminal cases against the other three were never pursued.

Johnnie Mae's boy, Shelton Chappell, is a man now, and he has been piecing together the events that took away his mother. He questioned his reluctant father before his death, and pored over the few court records that still exist. Only in the last few years did he come to fully understand what happened that night, and what followed her death.

He learned that the brief homicide report was hidden from investigators. That there are no incident reports, no crime scene photos. That the murder weapon disappeared from the evidence room, and is missing to this day.

And that the two white deputies who investigated the case were fired after complaining of a cover-up.

He learned all this from the fired deputies themselves, now well into retirement.

In 1996, one of them, Lee Cody, came across a newspaper notice about a Chappell family gathering to mark the anniversary of their mother's death.

Cody was living on a houseboat nearby. He had long ago moved on with his life after his days as a sheriff's deputy.

"And I thought, that's Johnnie Mae's son," he said. "I knew I had to tell him."

He waited in the shadows at the back of the hall during the family reunion, then nervously stepped forward. The tall, white-haired white man gently shook hands with the small, determined black man.

They formed an alliance that has since been joined by another voice from the past: a man who implicates his own father in the cover-up, then-Chief of Detectives J.C. Patrick.

Their testimony is at the center of a civil lawsuit filed by Shelton Chappell in federal court against city and police officials in Jacksonville and all four men, asking for a jury trial to air the family's complaints of a wrongful death and attempted cover-up. The suit is under review by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta; a judge initially threw it out because it was filed too late.

In recent years, a handful of white men have been convicted in slayings of blacks in the 1960s, raising hopes in other long-dormant civil rights cases. The most recent was the conviction of Bobby Frank Cherry for his role in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls nearly 40 years ago.

But there are scores of unsolved, race-driven killings of blacks that never will be resolved. And even the relative handful of old cases that are being revived appear to have slim prospects for successful prosecution. Witnesses and suspects die, paperwork is lost, evidence is thrown out. In many cases the original investigations were so shoddy that there is little evidence to resurrect decades later.

The case of Johnnie Mae Chappell has not been taken up by law enforcement authorities--partly because one of her assailants was convicted at the time and sent to prison.

But to some, the seemingly reckless handling of the case showed a criminal justice system rooted in time and place, and betrayed the unwillingness of a white-run community to demand justice for all when the victim was black and the killers were white.

The son wants a justice that goes beyond the short prison sentence served by just one of the men in the car, something that makes the city of Jacksonville pay, something that acknowledges his mother died a martyr in the civil rights movement.

"If they want to take me to jail, I'm willing to go to jail; I'm willing to die for this cause," he said.

Where Jim Crow Ruled

At the time of the killing, March 23, 1964, Jacksonville for several days had been convulsed by race riots, touched off when a group of blacks staged demonstrations at downtown hotels and restaurants for equal rights and opportunities. The local newspaper described them as "a mob of howling Negroes."

Mayor Haydon Burns deputized 496 white firefighters to combat "hit-and-run" groups of protesters. He was angry that President Johnson was about to sign the Civil Rights Act giving blacks access to public facilities and new voting protections.

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