Florida Gov. Silent on Demand for Justice in Chappell Murder

Folio Weekly | March 10, 2005
On a rainy March evening in 1964, Elmer Kato drove three friends around Jacksonville in his dark blue Plymouth. They talked about girls. They talked about the race riots roiling the city. The radio inside the Plymouth crackled with news of blacks smashing car windows, attacking whites. and the race riots roiling the city. "Let’s get a nigger," someone said. Kato turned the Plymouth toward the black neighborhood of Pickettville. It was around 7 p.m.

As the car sped down New Kings Road, Johnnie Mae Chappell, a black maid and mother of 10, searched the grassy roadside for a wallet she’d dropped returning home from the store. As the Plymouth approached some shadowy figures beside the road, J.W. Rich stuck his arm out of the window and pointed a 22-caliber handgun at them. Chappell’s friends said they heard a loud "pop." Chappell fell to the ground. "I been shot," she cried.

Chappell died in a rusted ambulance on the way to the city’s "colored" hospital. The following day, The Florida Times-Union ran a story about the riots: "Large Area is Terrorized by Negroes," the headline read. The newspaper gave Johnnie Mae Chappell’s murder only scant mention, deep in the article.

The Jacksonville justice system proved similarly unconcerned with her death. Though a pair of detectives broke the case after only a few months, and three of the four men in the car confessed and then pled guilty to murder, charges were dropped against three of them. The sole man convicted, Rich, was found guilty only of manslaughter.

Now, 41 years later, there is mounting pressure to reopen the Chappell case. Inspired by recent high-profile prosecutions of Civil Rights-era murders in Mississippi and elsewhere, state senator Tony Hill (D-Jacksonville) has joined former Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detective C. Lee Cody and the Chappell family in asking Gov. Jeb Bush to appoint an independent prosecutor to review the case.

"The senator thinks it is absolutely ridiculous that this woman was killed in 1964 and that the family still does not have closure," says Hill’s legislative assistant Deborah Parsons.

The governor’s response to the request has so far been silence. More than a month after Hill and Cody met with Gov. Bush’s assistant general council Wendy Berger, no decision has been made. Several calls Folio Weekly made to Gov. Bush’s communications office were not returned.

This isn’t the first time there has been pressure to reopen the investigation. After Cody and his partner Sgt. Donald Coleman obtained confessions from the guilty men, they were shocked to discover there was no investigation underway — and no plans for one. No detectives had been assigned to the case — indeed, there was no case file. And although Cody and Coleman even recovered the murder weapon, ballistics tests were never conducted to tie the gun to Rich. The weapon wasn’t entered into evidence at the trial, and eventually it disappeared, along with the confessions and the court file. Rich’s confession resurfaced only when a "Dateline NBC" reporter found a copy of it in the filings of another court case in Georgia. Cody and Coleman were fired and the only item left from the case is the bullet taken from Chappell’s body.

Despite long odds, Cody has continued to agitate for justice. He lobbied the FBI to look into the Chappell case and other examples of corruption in the Duval County Sheriff’s office under Sheriff Dale Carson. He asked several governors to intervene. In 1979, his pleas prompted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to recommend that Gov. Bob Graham appoint an outside investigator. But Graham, like other governors, never acted.

Now Cody hopes that national interest in reexamining Civil Rights cases will force the issue back into the courts. In 1997 in Mississippi, state prosecutors successfully prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith VI for the 1963 murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, even though two mistrials had previously been declared. Decades after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombings in Birmingham, state prosecutors in Alabama brought charges against the men responsible. And in the notorious "Mississippi Burning" case, prosecutors in January 2005 charged Klansman and ordained Baptist minister Edgar Ray Killen with the June 1964 murder of three Civil Rights activists.

Closer to home, Florida State Attorney General Charlie Crist is reviewing the still-unsolved murder of Civil Rights leader Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriette, whose home was firebombed on Christmas Eve in 1951.

Crist is not currently considering the Chappell murder, according to spokesperson Bob Sparks. "Regarding the Johnnie Mae Chappell tragedy, we understand that Senator Hill has asked the governor to appoint a special prosecutor and we wish that well," says Sparks.

Chappell’s son Shelton and Sen. Hill contacted Gov. Bush after state attorney Harry Shorstein declined to reopen the Chappell case in 2004, citing the defendant’s right to a speedy trial. Shorstein also noted that getting a murder conviction for the other men involved when Rich was only tagged with manslaughter was unlikely.

Hill believes Shorstein fails to take into account Supreme Court rulings that allowed prosecutions elsewhere. He gave Berger a copy of Supreme Court case law used by the State of Mississippi Office of the Attorney General to justify their prosecution of Killen.

"The excuses given about the time frame that has lapsed and the rights of those accused of murdering Mrs. Chappell should not outweigh justice being rendered to Mrs. Chappell and her family," Hill wrote in his letter to Gov. Bush. "We all know if time frames or the rights of those accused of such a heinous crime were legitimate excuses, cases like the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, Church Bombing would not have been re-opened."

And Cody agrees.

"Mississippi’s done it. Alabama’s done it. And Mississippi’s done it again," he says, referring to Killen’s arrest. "Why won’t Florida?"

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