An NPR investigation has uncovered new evidence in a prominent unsolved murder case from the civil rights era, including the identity of an attacker who admitted his involvement but was never charged.
The murder of Boston minister James Reeb in 1965 drew national attention at the time and spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed the Jim Crow voting practices that had disenfranchised millions of black Americans.
The case remains officially unsolved. Three men charged in 1965 with attacking Reeb and two other ministers on a street corner in Selma, Ala., were acquitted by an all-white jury.
But a four-year NPR investigation, led by Alabama-based reporters Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace, found an eyewitness to the attack who has never spoken publicly about what she saw. She said the three men acquitted in the case — Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle and Namon O'Neal "Duck" Hoggle — were, in fact, the men who attacked Reeb.
That witness, Frances Bowden, also described the participation of another man, William Portwood. In an exclusive interview with NPR, Portwood confirmed his participation in the 1965 assault.
"All I did was kick one of them," Portwood said.
Portwood had been a cabinetmaker in 1965 but on the side worked as hired muscle for Cook. When asked about the night Reeb was attacked, he said, "I was more than there."
Portwood died less than two weeks after NPR confirmed his involvement.
At the time of his interview with NPR, Portwood was 86 years old and had suffered several small strokes, which made it difficult for him to remember the details of what had happened.
According to the law in Alabama in 1965, had Portwood been arrested after the attack, he could have been tried for murder along with Cook and the Hoggles.
Bowden, who works at a bail bond company on the same street where she watched the attack more than 50 years ago, admitted to NPR that she lied when testifying in court in 1965.
"I'm not proud of being up in the courtroom telling a lie," Bowden said. "[Because] I did tell a lie; I said I didn't know and I did know."
She also told NPR she lied to officers from the FBI.
"[The FBI] asked me if I saw what happened," she told NPR. "I told 'em I saw some people beating a man, but I didn't know who they were and I stuck to that," she said. "Of course, we knew who it was; we just didn't admit we knew."
Under federal law, the statute of limitations for perjury and making false statements to the FBI is five years. Under Alabama law it's three years. Both have long since expired.
According to FBI records obtained by NPR, investigators tried to question Portwood after the attack on Reeb, but he refused to give them a statement. Those records also say that one of the other attackers told investigators he was with Portwood that night, but Portwood's wife at the time gave her husband an alibi — she said he was going over schoolwork with his daughter.
That daughter, Audrey Sutherland, confirmed to NPR that Portwood told her he was present at the attack, and she confirmed he wasn't home helping her that night.
The FBI reopened the Reeb case in July 2008. According to the FBI file from that second investigation, also obtained by NPR, agents never approached Portwood or Bowden for follow-up interviews.
Instead, the agent concluded: "A review of the 1965 file provides no leads for further investigation."
The agent declined to discuss the case with NPR.
Cynthia Deitle, who served as the FBI's Civil Rights Unit chief from 2008 to 2011, told NPR that federal jurisdiction on cold cases is limited to three things: bombings, kidnappings, or crossing state lines in the commission of a murder.
"If I'm the agent in Birmingham and I get the James Reeb case assigned to me," said Deitle, "right away ... my first thought's going to be, there's no federal crime."
In 2008, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which tasked the FBI and the Department of Justice with reexamining unsolved, racially motivated murders from the civil rights era. The FBI came up with about 100 cases to reopen, including Reeb's.
"We wanted to make sure that every person who committed one of these homicides had been identified and investigated," said Deitle, who oversaw the Cold Case Initiative for the bureau.
In more than a decade, that initiative has claimed only one successful federal prosecution.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Today, NPR has exclusive reporting that reveals new information in a major civil rights-era murder case. Several white men attacked Reverend James Reeb and two other ministers in Selma, Ala., in March of 1965. Reeb died from his injuries, and three local men were put on trial in December of that year. They were later acquitted.
NPR has unearthed the truth about the attack and learned the identity of a fourth unindicted assailant. He was an enforcer for a violent group led by a man named Elmer Cook.
WILLIAM PORTWOOD: I tried to forget it. I don't even want to talk about it.
CHIP BRANTLEY, BYLINE: You said it scared you just thinking about - thinking about being a part of it was scary...
PORTWOOD: I was a part of it. I was part of it.
KING: That was the voice of the fourth man. And we should give a spoiler alert here for listeners of NPR's investigative podcast White Lies. This story will reveal some of what's in that new episode, which comes out this morning. Graham Smith of NPR's Investigations team has the rest of the story.
GRAHAM SMITH, BYLINE: The attack on James Reeb shocked a nation already struggling to process the violence they'd seen on the TV news from Selma two days earlier. State troopers beat and tear-gassed black voting rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister and father of four living in Boston, had flown to Alabama in response to that brutality, one of hundreds answering a call for solidarity from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As twilight settled on Selma, Reeb and his companions, Reverends Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen, left a black-owned cafe to head back to a meeting at Brown Chapel AME. Here's Olsen, interviewed days after the attack. He recalls seeing a group of white men moving in their direction.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CLARK OLSEN: Jim was slightly behind as we were walking, and he did not look around. I did look around in time to see one man with some kind of a stick or a pipe or a club swing the stick violently at Jim Reeb. And it hit Jim on the side of the head, and Jim immediately fell to the pavement on his back.
SMITH: After the initial blow, the other men piled on, kicking and striking the fallen minister and his friends. A crowd gathered and watched. Reeb suffered a severe head injury, and he died two days later. President Johnson cited his death in introducing a voting rights bill. But in Selma, there was only a half-hearted murder prosecution by the local DA, a strident segregationist. No local witnesses testified for the state. An all-white jury delivered acquittals for the three accused - Elmer Cook, Stanley Hoggle and Namon O'Neal Hoggle, also known as Duck - all now deceased.
NPR's investigation of the case, led by reporters Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace, identified a key eyewitness to the assault. Frances Bowden admitted she lied to the FBI and in court in 1965, claiming she had seen the attack but couldn't identify the attackers. She told us the men who'd been put on trial and acquitted were, in fact, guilty. Bowden also confirmed the identity of an unindicted fourth assailant, William Portwood, at the time still living in Selma. She told NPR she knew the men well.
FRANCES BOWDEN: Elmer and Duck and Stanley and Bill - they come by the Silver Moon, and they turn the corner. They come out the door and went 'round the corner behind them.
BRANTLEY: So you saw Stanley Hoggle, Duck Hoggle, Elmer Cook and Bill Portwood come out of the Silver Moon.
BOWDEN: And follow them around the corner and attack them, I sure did.
SMITH: FBI records say they investigated Portwood at the time, but he had an alibi and was never arrested. We found Portwood still living in Selma. He admitted to NPR that he had participated in the attack along with Cook and the Hoggles. Portwood, who said his memory was failing after a series of small strokes, claimed only to have kicked one of the ministers. He also admitted to being the muscle for Cook's group, which had a reputation for violence.
PORTWOOD: I was real, real bad. But I didn't kill. It was mostly just stomping the hell out of somebody that Duck didn't - that they didn't like. I was a bad, bad boy. But I never have been able to get, you know, caught.
SMITH: I never have been able to get caught, he said. According to Alabama law in 1965, anyone who participated in the assault on Reeb could be charged with murder. However, less than two weeks after reporters Brantley and Grace confirmed Portwood's involvement, he died.
Reeb's case is one of three murders connected to the voting rights movement in Selma and the only one without a conviction. Three Klansmen were convicted in 1965 for shooting Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo to death, and a state trooper pleaded guilty in 2010 for the killing of civil rights organizer Jimmie Lee Jackson in nearby Marion.
Graham Smith, NPR News.
KING: James Reeb's murder is the subject of the NPR podcast White Lies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.