Too late to reopen '64 case of race killing
The state's speedy trial rules prohibit the prosecution of three white men in the slaying of a black woman.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 10, 2006
GAINESVILLE - A state attorney reviewing the case of a black woman shot and killed during a race riot 42 years ago concluded that Florida law prohibits recharging three men because of speedy trial constraints.
Johnnie Mae Chappell, a housekeeper and mother of 10, was fatally shot in 1964 as she searched for a lost billfold along a Jacksonville road.
Investigators initially determined that the gunshots were fired from a car carrying four white men, who were charged with first-degree murder.
But charges against Elmer Kato, Wayne Chessman and James Davis were later dropped. The fourth man, J.W. Rich, confessed but said the gun went off accidentally. He was tried, convicted of manslaughter and served three years in prison.
State Attorney William Cervone, appointed in January by Gov. Jeb Bush to review findings in the reopened case, wrote in a three-page letter to the governor that "state law is clear that when charges have been dismissed by the state, they may not be refiled after speedy trial has expired."
Florida enacted speedy trial rules in 1971, stipulating that anyone taken into custody before the effective date of Sept. 27, 1971, must go to trial on or before Nov. 1, 1971. Cervone said that rule applies to this case and no refinement has been made in the law since.
Aside from speedy trial concerns, Cervone said, there were significant issues related to the statute of limitations in the case. The limitations has expired for any offense other than first-degree murder.
"Given that Rich, the acknowledged shooter, was convicted only of manslaughter, and given the lack of any compelling evidence against the remaining defendants to prove complicity beyond mere presence, it is difficult to believe that a prosecution for first-degree murder against those defendants would be successful," Cervone wrote.
Shelton Chappell, who was only 4 months old when his mother was killed, met with Cervone before the letter was released Tuesday and expressed disappointment with the decision.
"We have nothing to hang our heads down low about because the law is the law," he said outside the State Attorney's Office. "If the state attorney feels that he can't take it any further, we have to respect that. I know there's a higher authority that these men have to face."
Bush asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to reopen the case three years ago at the request of a former Duval County sheriff's detective, resulting in a 2004 investigation. The governor last year ordered yet another investigation.
The FDLE found no new evidence in either investigation.
"Regretfully, the law and the facts compel me to agree with the determinations of everyone else in the law enforcement community who has reviewed this case in recent years in concluding that Florida's criminal justice system has nothing else to offer them," Cervone wrote.
Chappell said his family will continue to fight for justice against the four men, all of whom are alive. He said his lawyers planned to take the case to federal prosecutors and were considering a civil lawsuit.
"It's not over," Chappell said. "This is just one step. We have other things we need to do to make it complete. We're still looking for justice. Justice is going to be served - with this or without it. It's going to be served.
"Believe me, we are not at the end of the road. We've come this far. It's not over. You'll hear more from us."
The March 1964 shooting happened while race riots raged in downtown Jacksonville. A group of black protesters staged demonstrations at hotels and restaurants for equal rights.
Chappell, however, wasn't involved in the demonstrations or riots. She was on her way home from working as a maid for a white family when she was gunned down. The men initially told police that they were looking for a black person to shoot.
It was unclear where Kato, Chessman, Davis and Rich are living. They could not be reached for comment.
Retired Detective Lee Cody, the arresting officer who helped get the case reopened, said state officials "turned their back on this family."
"It's a devastating day for me," Cody said. "It's a sad day for our country in my judgment and for the state of Florida."
[Last modified May 10, 2006, 01:07:05]
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