A town on trial
DAWSON Gordon B. Howell parked his truck at Bridges Crossroads, shook off the cold and walked in Tiny's Grocery to shake hands with eternity.
Tiny's was just that. A small, out-of-the-way place where people felt safe stopping for cold beer and leaded gas, sardines and saltines. Conversation with Tiny, the store operator, last name of Denton, was free if he knew you.
Over that last year and a half, Denton and Howell traded pretty regularly. Howell, a farm manager and horseman from Lee County, often stopped at Tiny's for cigarettes during his travels through rural Terrell County on State Highway 32.
He bought two cartons that morning. But he had something else on his mind.
They could have talked about anything in those scant minutes. These were strange times for politics and weather in Southwest Georgia.
They could have talked (or chuckled) about Jimmy Carter's surprising win in the Iowa caucus three nights earlier.
They could have talked about the bone white cold that settled in below the gnat-line that winter. Colder than a well digger's ... well, you know. Cold enough for snow. And ski masks.
Instead, they talked about tangelos.
Tiny later testified that Howell paid for the cigarettes and asked him to order a box of tangelos.
Tiny said he would.
It was a little after 10 a.m., Thursday, Jan. 22, 1976.
What happened next that morning at Bridges Crossroads is certain.
Somebody robbed Tiny's Grocery of $150.
Somebody put a gun to the back of Gordon Howell's head and pulled the trigger.
Somebody cleaned out his pockets, sped away in his truck and abandoned it at a pond less than a mile away.
Somebody got away with murder.
IT IS SAID that the winners write the history. But there are no winners in murder cases. Only death.
Twenty-five years ago this month, happenings in Dawson, a rural community of about 6,000 people, became national news.
Twenty-five years ago this month in Terrell Superior Court, five black youths stood charged with robbing Tiny's and killing Howell.
Twenty-five years ago this month, they called them the Dawson Five.
Before they became "the Dawson Five," they were five poor, young, black men from rural Terrell County charged with robbery and first-degree murder.
They were brothers Henderson and Roosevelt Watson, their cousin J.D. Davenport, and two friends, Johnny B. and James E. Jackson Jr., who were also brothers.
Denton had identified Howell's killer as Roosevelt Watson, a young man who lived with his mother in a ramshackle house near Denton's store at Georgia Highway 32 and Callis Road, six miles east of Dawson.
Denton told investigators from the Terrell County Sheriff's Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that he recognized Watson as one of four black men in dark clothing who entered his store shortly after Howell did. He looked up and they had pulled ski masks over their faces.
One of them, he said, wielded a .38-caliber Saturday Night Special.
Investigators never found the gun and thought a fifth co-conspirator must have discarded it.
Based mostly on Denton's eyewitness account, a partial palm print removed from the hood of Howell's truck, a confession by Roosevelt Watson and corroborating statements from the others, District Attorney John Irwin and special prosecutor Michael Stoddard were seeking the death penalty.
For all five.
But the five said they didn't do it. They said the police made them confess.
IN THE 19 months that passed between that cold murderous day in January 1976, and the beginning of the murder trial on a sweltering late August morning in 1977, the whole system of justice in Southwest Georgia especially that of white law officers obtaining confessions from poor black suspects came into question.
"The court was going to try those five young men," says Dawson Five defense attorney Millard Farmer. "We were going to try that town."
Still, even as a trial drew near, the prosecution was confident.
"That (confession) was the main bit of evidence," said Stoddard, who is now the chief judge in Cobb County. "But it was not as strong as we hoped for. ... I felt like we had a good case. So did John Irwin. I just wanted to get it in front of a jury."
By the last week in August 1977, the Dawson Five story had gone national "A case of murder; a charge of forced confessions," according to a headline in the New York Times.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, an indigent legal aid and civil rights group based in Montgomery, Ala., had hired Farmer, a flamboyant, boisterous defense attorney who had earned a wide reputation for representing unpopular defendants in racially charged murder cases across the South.
For more than a year, Farmer and the SPLC had publicized the Dawson Five case in anti-death penalty fundraising efforts, hoping to stamp out capital punishment again especially in Georgia, a state that had fought the lion's share of death penalty court battles.
The U.S. Supreme Court had declared execution unconstitutional in the 1972 Furman v. Georgia case. Four years later, it reversed itself on another Georgia case in Gregg v. Georgia.
While other Southwest Georgia murder cases in the 1970s like the 1973 Alday murders near Donalsonville had attracted the nation's attention, the proximity of Plains newly inaugurated President Carter's hometown just 20 miles away made the Dawson Five story of murder and forced confessions irresistible for national reporters.
And Farmer, a Newnan native with wild curly hair and stories to tell, was eager to hold up a mirror to an Old South racial divide in Terrell County.
"What made the town such an easy target was that Jimmy Carter had recently been elected president espousing the New South," Farmer said in a recent interview with The Albany Herald.
"They were not going to listen to any legal arguments I had."
Once described by New York Times writer Tom Wicker as "possessed of a voice like a bullfrog with laryngitis," Farmer defended the Five in what he calls "the court (pronounced 'co-wat') of public opinion."
IN THE MONTHS leading up to the trial, it had been widely reported that the Dawson Five now denied any involvement in Howell's murder and said police forced them to confess under threats of electrocution, castration and execution.
But that paled in comparison to the canvas of colors Farmer painted in pretrial hearings.
Ezekiel Holley was a 35-year-old supporter of the Dawson Five in 1977. Today he is president of the Terrell County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He says Farmer brought to light "a lot of ugly things."
"I really hate it that the Dawson Five had to be accused of a crime," he said. "But after we went through that, I think it made for a better Terrell County."
SUPERIOR COURT Judge Walter Idus Geer was no stranger to high-profile, unpopular murder cases. Neither was John Irwin. In 1973, Geer had presided over the much-publicized Alday murder trials in Seminole County. And Irwin had defended Billy Isaacs, one of four men convicted of murdering six members of the Ned Alday family.
But Geer and Irwin, both of whom have been dead for more than 20 years, were unprepared for the Millard Farmer machine.
For three weeks in early August 1977, Geer presided over Dawson Five pretrial hearings.
Irwin and Stoddard presented a smattering of evidence they intended to enter at trial.
Farmer argued that not only were his clients innocent of any crime and should not even be tried, but they were also innocent by reason of racial prejudices in Terrell County.
He put white ministers and school principals on the stand and questioned them about their policies for excluding black people. He subpoenaed white public officials to explain how Terrell County, which was 60 percent black, had no black elected officials.
He called a former Dawson police officer to testify about past harassment of black people by white law officers, including poisoning dogs in black neighborhoods with arsenic-laced wieners and jokes about lending the mayor a machine gun so he could "shoot some niggers" trespassing on his land.
Even a day of what would have otherwise been gripping testimony was overshadowed by a sideline issue.
Under oath, James E. Jackson Jr. told earlier in the week of how Terrell County Deputy Jack Hammack put a gun to his head in the back of a police car and demanded to know where the gun used to murder Howell was hidden. Hammack testified that it never happened.
But the real story that day was about the night before. A private, all-white swimming pool had been drained to supposedly thwart a plan by some black people who intended to climb the fence for a symbolic, well-timed dip.
It was made-for-the headlines Southern Gothic charged by emotion and accelerated by a courtroom filled with stirred-up spectators.
And the trial had not even begun.
"Millard, he put on a show. He was good," said former GBI Agent Jerry Culbertson, lead GBI investigator in the Dawson Five case. "That courtroom was one of the most explosive, tension-filled places I've ever been in in my life. That might have blown that little town wide open if they had convicted those boys."
A week before the trial was set to begin, Geer, a heavy smoker who suffered chronic lung problems, recused himself for "health reasons."
Today, both Farmer and Culbertson who still agree on little say Geer was just looking for a way out.
By then, everybody else was, too.
Dougherty County Superior Court Judge Leonard Farkas, a young, progressive jurist from Albany, was selected to take Geer's place for the duration of the trial.
That duration lasted about four hours on the morning of Aug. 29, 1977.
ON A DAY reserved for jury selection, one motion the last of more than 150 filed by Farmer, a challenge of Watson's confession needed a ruling. Geer had heard arguments on whether Watson's statements were admissible. But he did not file his decision before taking ill.
So around 9:30 a.m., Farkas dismissed potential jurors and heard more arguments on the confession, including an extended discourse from Farmer on the case and the current prejudicial state of the Southwest Georgia legal system.
"There had been such a buildup several weeks before," said Farkas, who is now 70 and in private law practice in Albany. "After that, I had to make some decision. We had to get something tried."
Very quickly and with little drama, Farkas threw out the confession. He remembers telling Irwin to just go with his other evidence. And, "He said, 'I don't have any other evidence.'"
Immediately Stoddard protested that the decision "gutted" the prosecution.
"That was the crux of the case," Stoddard said. "All we had left was the eyewitness testimony."
He and Irwin halted the trial to file an appeal.
But by then everybody knew the case was over.
"We had it won," Farmer said.
In November, the Georgia Court of Appeals overturned Farkas's decision and sent the case back. In December, Geer, whose health had returned, quickly and quietly threw out Watson's confession again, writing in his order that "statements were not freely, voluntarily and intelligently made."
The prosecution dropped all charges and freed the Dawson Five.
The case and the investigation was closed.
No one else was ever charged, and more than 26 years later, Gordon Howell's murder is still unsolved.
It will likely stay that way.
Today, the GBI office in Sylvester, which covers Dawson, doesn't even keep a file on the case, Special-Agent-in-Charge Mike Lewis said.
"I don't see anybody re-opening this case," Stoddard said.
CIVIL RIGHTS GROUPS and the SPLC claimed victory in the Dawson Five drama.
The case has even been cited in law school studies for the prevention of miscarriages of justice when poor, uneducated defendants are accused of murder.
Howell's widow, Maggie Howell, also felt justice had been miscarried miscarried and blinded by the spotlight.
Her husband's murder left her poor, and she spent much of her life, until her 1996 death, in a small home in Leesburg.
On Jan. 20, 1978, The Albany Herald published a letter signed by "Mrs. Gordon B. Howell," in which she said she waited two years for justice. And got none.
"Yes I am bitter," she wrote, "for I know justice hasn't played any part in the case. I guess that's something poor white folks can't get any more.
"My husband is dead and the ones that killed him are free. ... but no one seems to care except the people that loved him."
Gordon Howell's sister, Geraldine Abbott, now 78, said although she still thinks the Dawson Five killed her brother, she was able to get over his murder. Eventually.
But Maggie Howell pulled that sorrow and grief down into the grave with her.
"It was with her 'til the day she died," Abbott recalls. "She really had the bitterness in her about that. It was hard not to."
UNSHEATHING SHARP, OLD recollections is not easy without getting nicked on the edges. But ask most anybody here today, regardless of skin color, and they are quick to remind you that "we all bleed the same."
Terrell County is different than it was then.
Black officials began winning elections and serving in public offices in the late '70s. The county now has a black sheriff, a black school superintendent, a black mayor of Dawson and a majority black Dawson city council and county school board.
"Time," Holley said, had more to do with changes than the Dawson Five case did.
But, 25 years later, Terrell County is, in some ways, still the same. Schools still are divided by color, by choice. Most white children attend private school at Terrell Academy, while black students make up 96 percent of a public school system, that consistently ranks among the worst in Georgia.
Terrell County still has about 11,000 people, and about 60 percent of them are black, according to the 2000 Census. The county still has high rates of illiteracy, high school dropouts and teenage pregnancy. Census numbers also show that Terrell County had the state's highest rate of people on public assistance in 1999 more than 10 percent.
Farmer, who now lives and practices law in Atlanta, said he does not come back to south Georgia much any more. He has heard about some changes in Terrell County over the past 25 years. But it was not up to him to force change, he said. He just exposed the ills that were there. Those who were left behind were left to deal with them.
And truth be told, most people in Terrell County would rather see old wounds left to fade into memory, deal with things in their own time, in their own ways.
"You're not digging up all that mess again, are you?" said one Terrell County court officer who asked not to be named in this story.
SOME MAJOR PLAYERS in the Dawson Five case have been dead almost as long as Elvis.
Irwin died in February 1978 from health problems associated with stress surrounding the case.
Geer died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1981.
Deputy Jack Hammack was killed by a Terrell jail inmate during an escape attempt in 1980.
Roosevelt Watson, who had been accused of shooting Howell, became a janitor at Albany State University. He died of heart complications in 1990 at 33.
But former GBI agent Culbertson, now a Church of Christ minister, returned home to Missouri where he recently began a new career as a special education teacher.
He told his wife about the case and maybe a few others, he said. But otherwise he has not mentioned the Dawson Five "two or three times" in the last 25 years.
Then again: "I always wondered what ever became of those boys."
THE REMAINING FOUR of the Dawson Five are alive and living anonymously in Albany.
The late Roosevelt Watson's brother, Henderson, now 50, is nearly impossible to locate.
The Watson's mother, Fannie Lou, and sister, Annie Pearl Lewis, said Henderson stays around Albany, mostly with other family members. Today, he is unemployed, has no phone, no permanent address and, according to his mother, has no desire to be interviewed or photographed.
"We don't want to talk about that no more," she said.
Their cousin, J.D. Davenport, now 45, also has no phone and no permanent address. He works for A-1 Brantley Septic Services in Albany.
Davenport declined several interview and photo requests.
The Jackson brothers said it had probably been about 25 years since they had even spoken to a reporter. They didn't have anything to hide, they said; didn't really have anything to talk about either, though.
They see the others sometimes, though rarely all at the same time in the same place. And some things they just don't talk about much any more.
Johnny B. (he still goes by that) is now 43 and seems to have fared pretty well. He drives an 18-wheeler on regional long hauls and lives in a modest, well-kept home in a quiet East Albany neighborhood. He and his wife, Patricia, have two daughters.
With a firm handshake and an easy smile, Jackson says he is mostly over the 19 months he spent in the Terrell County Jail.
Faith, he says, and his father, who died earlier this year, got him through the tough times. Still do.
"That gave a lot of people that didn't have hope some hope to stand up for was was right," he said. "Sitting in jail for something you know you didn't do and the people who have you behind bars know you didn't do, that's hard.
"Shoot. I'm just glad I was delivered from that and allowed to go free."
His brother, James E. Jackson Jr., the youngest of the Dawson Five, is now 42. For the past 18 years, he has worked for the Faulkner family, which owns awning and shutter companies in Albany.
"He's just like part of the family," Rex Faulkner said.
The antithesis of his glib older brother, James Jackson is quiet, pensive and economical with words. He listens intently, pauses for a moment after every question, and often answers with a simple yes or no.
Since he was a juvenile at the time of his arrest, Jackson went to a reform school in Blakely, finished the ninth grade and never went back.
And for about two years after the state dropped the charges, he says, he didn't go near Dawson without looking over his shoulder.
"I'll never forget that," he said.
The Jacksons' sister, Patricia Robinson, who now lives in Orlando, Fla., still seethes over the fragmentation of her eight siblings, who scattered from Newark, N.J., to Orlando to Albany after the charges were dropped against the Dawson Five.
"After then, things didn't seem the same there," she said. "Sometimes things happen when you're poor and black. ... Makes my blood boil."
BEFORE JAN. 22, 1976, Tiny Denton kept to himself, ran the store and lived in a small mobile home out back. He died about the same way alone in 1993 at the age of 73.
The Dawson Five hoopla turned Tiny's Grocery and Bridges Crossroads into a macabre tourist attraction. Denton, a World War II veteran, soon kept the store open less and less and kept to himself more and more.
Beverly Harrell, who often traded at Tiny's and operates a horse stable less than a mile from Bridges Crossroads, recalls Denton as a sad, reclusive, loner.
"He was sort of to himself a lot after that," Harrell said. "He was just sort of lonely."
Out-of-town reporters often "harassed" Denton, she said, and others openly wondered if he had killed Howell, then fabricated a story to frame the Dawson Five.
"They turned the story around like Mr. Denton did it," Harrell said. "The news media just turned his whole life upside down. ... It was sad that Mr. Denton had to go through all that. He just never got an end to it."
Today, Tiny Denton's trailer is gone from Bridges Crossroads. The store windows are boarded up, and the gas pumps have been gone a while, too.
Head-tall weeds and vines wrap around the sides and back of what was Tiny's Grocery as if to pull the small white building into the ground. Mud puddles dot the front lot and cast a murky, eerie reflection of the scene in the morning light.
Tacked to the front gable is a big crimson sign that proclaims a new name "Martin Crossroads" after Dr. Billy Martin, a retired Dawson dentist who owns the property.
But change comes slowly at a rural crossroads even a quarter-century after it was, for a time, one of the most infamous crossroads in the country.
"It's always been Bridges Crossroads," Harrell said. "It'll always be Bridges Crossroads."
Ben Holcombe can be reached at (229) 434-8738.
Times of the Dawson Five
Here is a look at some of the highlights and court proceedings from the Dawson Five case:
Jan. 22, 1976 Shortly after 10 a.m., Gordon B. Howell is shot once in the back of the head during a robbery at Tiny's Grocery, six miles east of Dawson on Ga. Highway 32.
Store operator Linward 'Tiny' Denton, the only witness, is shaken, but unhurt. Howell, 61, dies later that day at an Albany Hospital.
Later that day Denton tells authorities that four young black men in dark clothing and ski masks robbed him, shot Howell then fled in Howell's pickup.
Investigators find Howell's truck abandoned less than a mile away. No money or weapons are recovered.
The next day Denton calls Terrell County Sheriff Jerry Dean to identify one of the robbers as one of the Watson boys who live with their mother near the store.
Feb. 1, 1976 Brothers, Henderson and Roosevelt Watson, their cousin J.D. Davenport and two friends, brothers Johnny B. and James E. Jackson Jr. are charged with the robbery and murder.
Feb. 10, 1976 On the testimony of Denton and a GBI agent, who says Roosevelt Watson confessed Howell's murder was accidental, the five men are bound over to the June term of Terrell County Grand Jury.
All five are indicted on robbery and capital murder charges.
Fall and winter of '76
The Southern Law Poverty Center in Montgomery, Ala., an indigent legal aid and civil rights organization, retains Atlanta-based Project Team Defense for the five youths.
Millard Farmer, a lawyer who has earned a wide reputation for successfully defending black people accused of killing whites in the South, takes the lead defense role.
December, 1976 Trials scheduled to begin during the December term of court in Terrell County are delayed by still-pending defense motions.
January 22, 1977 A year has passed since Howell's murder. A potential trial remains months away.
April 21, 1977 The New York times runs an explantory Sunday piece on the Dawson Five under the heading, "A Case of Murder; a Charge of Forced Confessions."
The SLPC uses the Dawson Five case in anti-death penalty fund raising literature and raises $100,000 to bond out Roosevelt Watson, the alleged triggerman, and James E. Jackson Jr.
Defense attorneys publicly charge that their clients are innocent and confessed under coercion and mortal threats from law officers.
Farmer inundates the Terrell County court with pre-trial motions.
The Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia assigns former Cobb County assistant district attorney Michael Stoddard to assist local prosecutor, John Irwin.
July 30, 1977 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) begins airing a documentary called "Life and Death: Dawson, Ga.," a half-hour film about the Dawson Five and the racial climate of Terrell County.
THE PRETRIAL ARGUMENTS
Aug. 1, 1977 Pretrial arguments attract national media to Dawson. In a surprise move Stoddard announces the state will not seek the death penalty.
Aug. 2, 1977 A former Dawson police officer testifies to seeing a Terrell County deputy point his gun at James E. Jackson Jr. He also testifies about rampant harassment of black people by white law officers in Terrell County.
Aug. 4, 1977 James E. Jackson Jr. testifies that he confessed because Terrell County Deputy Sheriff Jack Hammack threatened to kill him if he did not tell the location of the murder weapon.
Defense attorneys question area ministers of white churches and a white private school principal about excluding black people.
Aug. 5, 1977 Roosevelt Watson testifies that he admitted shooting Howell because officers threatened him with castration, electrocution and execution if he did not confess to the murder.
Aug. 8, 1977 The prosecution calls Dawson Public Safety Director Phil Law to dispute previous testimony detailing police prejudices against black people.
Aug. 9, 1977 Continuing pretrial arguments are overshadowed by charges from Farmer that an all-white private pool had been drained earlier in the week to keep black people out.
Later that day, Hammack denies Jackson's claims that the deputy pointed a gun at him and threatened to shoot him.
Aug. 10, 1977 A former GBI agent testifies that he "forgot" to report Denton's identification of Roosevelt Watson as the "triggerman" until three days after Howell's murder. He also testifies that two of the Five fingered Watson as the killer, and he confessed when confronted with their claims.
Aug. 11, 1977 Judge Walter Geer ends pretrial arguments to consider defense motions challenging evidence and indictments against the Dawson Five.
Aug. 16, 1977 After five days of deliberations, Geer sets an Aug. 29 trial date. Irwin and Stoddard plan to try the five separately beginning with the trial of alleged triggerman Roosevelt Watson.
Aug. 23, 1977 Citing ill health, Geer withdraws himself from hearing the Dawson Five trial.
Second District Administrative Judge Marcus Calhoun appoints Dougherty Superior Court Judge Leonard Farkas to preside in Geer's absence.
Aug. 29, 1977 Farkas presides over what is scheduled to be a day of jury selection in State v. Roosevelt Watson.
He dismisses potential jurors and hears arguments to suppress Watson's confession. Farmer argues that Farkas can not rule because he did not preside over previous hearings. Nonetheless, after four hours of arguments, Farkas suppresses the confession.
Stoddard announces the state's intention to appeal, and the trial is abruptly halted.
Nov. 8, 1977 The Georgia Court of Appeals overturns Farkas's ruling as erroneous because he ruled on the confessions without presiding over the previous evidentiary hearings.
Nov. 15, 1977 Geer, whose health has returned, and attorneys for both sides set a trial date for Dec. 27 in Terrell County.
Dec. 14, 1977 Geer, like Farkas, hears about four hours of pre-trial arguments and decides the confessions were improperly obtained. He rules to suppress them.
Dec. 19, 1977 Geer files his order suppressing the confessions.
Irwin decides not to appeal and drops all charges against the Dawson Five, saying without the confessions, prosecutors "don't have much to go on." And the investigation is closed.
The key players
Jerry Culbertson, lead GBI investigator in the Dawson Five case.
A Missouri native, Culbertson returned home to the Dunklin County Sheriff's Department in December of 1976. In the middle of the Dawson Five case (July 1977), Culbertson became a Church of Christ minister. Now, 54, he is an alternative school teacher at Perryville Middle School in Missouri.
Jerry Dean, Terrell County Sheriff 1974-1992.
Dean continued to serve as Sheriff until 1992, when he lost reelection by 475 votes to one of his deputies, John Bowens, who became the first black sheriff in Southwest Georgia. Now 67, Dean is retired and lives on a farm in Terrell County.
Leonard Farkas, Dougherty Superior Court Judge, who as a result of Geer's illness-related absence from the bench, presided over one day in the Dawson Five pretrial hearings, and ruled to suppress confession evidence.
After filling in for Geer, Farkas returned to the bench in Dougherty County until his retirement in 1985. Now, 70, he is in private practice in Albany.
Millard Farmer, Project Team Defense attorney and counsel for all of the Dawson Five
After the Dawson Five case, Farmer continued to serve as counsel in other much publicized murder cases across the South, including the trial of serial killer Ted Bundy. Farmer now lives and practices law in Atlanta.
Walter Idus Geer, Pataula Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge, presiding judge in Dawson Five case.
In 1981, Geer, who suffered from chronic lung problems, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He was 67.
Jack Hammack, Terrell County Deputy, accused of holding James E. Jackson at gun point and threatening to kill him.
Hammack remained with Dean's department until he was murdered on Nov. 11, 1980, while transporting David Lee Powell, a Terrell County Jail inmate, back from a doctor's visit in Albany. Powell was convicted of Hammack's murder in 1981 and sentenced to life in prison.
John Irwin, Pataula Judicial Circuit District Attorney, lead prosecutor in the Dawson Five case
Irwin, a Dawson native and former State Rep., was, like Geer, in poor health. Stress associated with the Dawson Five case was blamed for ailments which lead to his death in February 1978 at age 54.
Michael Stoddard, former Cobb County assistant district attorney sent by the state Prosecuting Attorneys Council to Dawson to assist Irwin in May 1977.
After the Dawson Five case, Stoddard married Jane Waters of Albany and the couple returned to Cobb County. Stoddard, 58, now Cobb's Chief Judge, has also served as a State Court and Superior Court Judge.