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Will a murder charge finally come in a '64 racial slaying?

As the state finishes reinvestigating her death along a Jacksonville road, Johnnie Mae Chappell's son hopes his long quest for justice has succeeded.

By JEAN HELLER
Published January 6, 2006


It was a moment Shelton Chappell had waited for all his life. Literally.

State investigators sat with Chappell Thursday morning and gave him five volumes of investigative records, an executive summary and four binders of supporting evidence.

They were the results of the reinvestigation of his mother's racially motivated murder in Jacksonville 41 years and 10 months ago.

Now, Chappell said Thursday afternoon, the other shoe must drop. Those responsible for leaving his mother, Johnnie Mae Chappell, to bleed to death on a dark Jacksonville road must be brought to justice.

"It's not difficult," he said. "You just do the right thing."

Johnnie Mae Chappell was black. The men accused of killing her were white.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reopened the case last year at the direction of Gov. Jeb Bush, acting at the behest of state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville.

Now that the investigation is complete, the question is whether there is sufficient evidence for Duval County State Attorney Harry Shorstein or another prosecutor to take the matter to a grand jury - again.

There is some new evidence, including interviews with two men who were in the car the night of the shooting and refused to say anything to FDLE investigators - until Shorstein subpoenaed them. Their statements are not yet public.

Shorstein, who participated in the FDLE investigation and has had a draft of the results for a month, indicated Thursday he has made up his mind. But he felt he couldn't divulge his decision until Bush officially accepts the findings and turns the case over to him.

"Until they call me and tell me it's mine, I can't say anything," Shorstein said. "I am ready to make a decision, but I have to wait to announce it until the governor responds."

Such a response could come as early as today.

Robert Spohrer, whose high-powered Jacksonville law office usually fights corporations and brought the state's first successful tobacco lawsuit, is representing Shelton Chappell for free, and is eager to move forward with the case.

"This is not some mystery we're still trying to solve," Spohrer said. "We're not trying to determine who did it. We know who did it."

But whether a prosecutor can justify reopening the case depends on whether the evidence supports first-degree murder charges. The statute of limitations has wiped out any other possibilities.

A few months after the murder, investigators questioned Wayne Chessman, a fixture on the local hot rod scene. Chessman confessed and gave up the three men in the car with him: J.W. Rich, Elmer Kato and James A. Davis.

Rich, the gunman, was convicted of manslaughter and served three years in prison. The other three were indicted but never tried. Since then, key evidence, including the gun, has disappeared.

Shelton Chappell and his four brothers wound up in foster care. Five sisters went to live with relatives. Chappell said he didn't meet some of his sisters until he was in his 20s. He was 4 months old when his mother died.

Asked why he has pursued this all these years, he said:

"My mother deserved more than this."

Asked if he ever got discouraged and considered quitting, he replied: "Never."

[Last modified January 6, 2006, 01:03:09]


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