James Bonard Fowler, a former Alabama state trooper, pleaded guilty yesterday for shooting to death 26-year-old voting rights activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson, on February 18, 1965. At the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) in the College of Law at Syracuse University we see this outcome as mixed. Jackson’s family waited nearly 45 years for justice, only to see the Judge sentence Fowler to six months in jail, followed by six months of unsupervised probation. The murder charges posed significant legal challenges for the District Attorney’s office but the sentence does not reflect the magnitude of the criminal offense that occurred.
On that fateful day a peaceful march turned deadly. Jackson, his grandfather and mother sought refuge in a café. He attempted to shield his mother after a trooper knocked her to the ground and it cost him his life. Fowler shot Jimmie Lee Jackson twice in the abdomen from point blank range. Fowler apologized to the family of Jimmie Lee Jackson as required by the plea agreement. After court, Jackson’s daughter, Cordelia Billingsley said, “This is supposed to be closure, but there will never be closure.”
The CCJI extends our continuing support to Mr. Jackson’s family for their perseverance in the quest for justice. We also commend District Attorney Michael Jackson for taking the initiative to conduct a thorough investigation of this case after previous efforts had not resulted in charges. Without such determination by the District Attorney, trooper Fowler would not have been held accountable within the criminal justice system for killing Mr. Jackson.
The Jimmie Lee Jackson case exemplifies the consequences of decades of disregard, delay and inaction. We will continue to urge federal and state law enforcement officials to act swiftly and fully investigate and prosecute for similar offenses. Like Fowler, there are many perpetrators and accomplices who have yet to be brought to justice or answer for their crimes.