JACKSONVILLE, FLA.— About 41 years ago, Shelton Chappell's mother Johnnie Mae was killed by a single gunshot from a passing car. She was a pedestrian on the side of the road, searching for her wallet that she lost on her way home from work.
Shelton was an infant when his mother died. A sad photo taken in the county morgue of hisfather looking down at his mother's body, is the only picture Shelton has of her. Growing up, he never knew the full story about who killed her or why—but was certain that he didn’t want her to be forgotten.
It was March 1964
In March of 1964, segregation was the festering wound in America that refused to heal. In Jacksonville, Florida on the night of March 23 rage and resentment over whites-only, back-of-the-bus, treatment had escalated into violent confrontations between black and white — the worst episode of racial rioting the city had ever seen. That was the night Mrs. Chappell was killed, though she’d been far away from the racial protests.
Her killing merited just a few words in the Jacksonville paper, while attention focused on whites injured in the racial disturbances.
And in the aftermath of that bullet, Shelton’s family split apart—he and his nine brothers and sisters scattered to distant relatives, juvenile shelters and foster homes. Shelton Chappell’s life has been largely defined by that event 41 years ago.
Shelton was a lonely child growing up with questions, but few answers: Why was his mother killed? And why couldn't he be with his family? As a young man, Shelton became determine to give the mother he hardly knew a proper memorial.
An unlikely ally
He had no idea that there was another man out there equally consumed with remembering Johnnie Mae Chappell and her senseless killing—a most unlikely ally in what would turn into a fight for justice long overdue.
Shelton met a stranger at what was supposed to be the final chapter in his efforts to memorialize his mother. He organized a church service for his far-flung brothers and sisters on the 32nd anniversary of his mother’s killing. His plan got a nice write-up in the local press. And that was how Lee Cody, a former Jacksonville sheriff’s detective, found out that the Chappell family was in town.
"I looked at that picture and I saw this young black guy kneeling by this grave site. Then I saw the name Chappell. And I said, 'My God, that’s Johnnie Mae’s son.' And I said, 'My goodness.'" says Cody.
Cody attended the service. Afterwards, he came up to Shelton and said, “Son, there's more information you really need to know."
“I thought I just had to tell someone in the Chappell family what really happened and how their mother was violated,” says Cody.
Lee Cody, it turns out, knew far more about Shelton’s mother’s death than anyone in the Chappell family.
A confession that went nowhere
Back in 1964, Cody had been a young, idealistic homicide detective. He received official praise for saving a black woman from drowning, and once busted some cross-burning Klansmen.
Cody says that 98 percent of his department couldn’t have cared less about the Chappell murder. So it was no big surprise that the case went unsolved for months. Unsolved, that is, until Cody — with just a few clues and a detective’s hunch — decided to interrogate a young tough guy named Wayne Chessman whom he suspected knew something about the shooting.
“ I took the Bible and turned to the Ten Commandments. And I took a highlighter and highlighted 'Thou shall not kill.' And I placed it in the drawer of the interrogation room,” he says.
"Just like a firecracker going off, he was ready to talk about it," says Cody of Chessman. The detective says Chessman spilled out details about the night Mrs. Chappell was shot. How, while the race riots flared downtown, he and three friends were driving around Jacksonville drinking beer talking about the violence. In the front seat was a gun and a guy named named J.W. Rich.
The interrogation revealed racism in some ugly language. By the end of the conversation, one of the men decided it was time to kill a black person.
Cody's partner, Don Coleman, remembered the confession and that Chessman said, “Rich picked the gun up. There was two or three people walking along, and he just fired.”
“To me, it was just a senseless, brutal murder of a poor defenseless woman on the side of a dark highway” says Cody. “And she wasn’t bothering anybody.”
After Chessman told his story, the cops picked up and arrested J.W. Rich, the alleged shooter, and another man who’d been in the car. The detectives say they confessed as well, though Rich said the gun went off accidentally. A fourth man who was in the car was arrested later.
Then came the unglamorous part of their exhilarating night of crime-solving — the paperwork. But the cops couldn’t find the Chappell case file anywhere. In fact, the only paperwork on what should have been an open murder investigation was a brief report they say they discovered under the floor mat in their boss’s office.
The detectives say they were astonished that Johnnie Mae Chappell's killing had quite literally been swept under the rug by the homicide department.
Still the evidence that the detectives had gathered in their work on the Chappell case was enough to get all four of the men in that car indicted for 1st degree murder. hey all pleaded not guilty.
But the cops say the case was later botched. Evidence, including the gun used in the shooting, was lost — intentionally they suspect. And when the first man went to trial eight months after the shooting, neither detective was asked to testify about the most damning part of the confessions they’d taken — the statement about setting out to get a black person (though they used a different word).
An all-white jury convicted Rich, the shooter, of manslaughter—the least-severe charge possible. He served three years. As for the other men who’d been indicted for the 1st degree murder of Johnnie Mae Chappell, all charges against them were dropped.
Detective Lee Cody was horrified. And to make things worse, the cops say they paid a price for aggressively investigating the Chappell shooting. They were demoted and then, they say, after complaining about racism and corruption in the sheriff’s department, found their careers as lawmen at an abrupt end.
Seeking truth and justice 40 years later
Cody never forgot about the case that he says ended his career. But it was all ancient history when decades later he spotted that article about the Chappell family reunion and decided to tell his old tale to the Shelton Chappell.
Now Shelton and the former cop have banded together to give justice another chance. With Cody’s help, the Chappell family filed a civil rights lawsuit against the men in the car and the city of Jacksonville.
That suit was dismissed, but in April, Governor Jeb Bush asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to re-open the Johnnie Mae Chappell investigation.
The four men who were charged with the crime are still alive.
The Johnnie Mae Chappell case could now become the latest in a wave of what’s being called the South’s “atonement trials” — current prosecutions of decades old civil rights crimes.
Most recently, Edgar Ray Killen was sentenced to 60 years in prison for his role in the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
In the Chappell case, Rich — the shooter — most likely can’t be tried again, but the other men in the car, all in their 60s now, could see their 1st degree murder indictments re-instated.
Shelton, who now believes that his mother’s killing was barely investigated, accidentally solved, and indifferently prosecuted, is eager for a new day in court.
"Justice is due and justice is due now," says Shelton Chappell.
Three of men who were in the car that night did not respond to requests from "Dateline" for a comment. J.W. Rich did respond, but declined to answer questions about the shooting.
Meanwhile, the state of Florida has taken one step to right the wrongs done so long ago. The strip of highway has been re-named for Johnnie Mae Chappell.
Shelton says that no matter what happens with the new investigation, he’s already found a world of comfort in his unlikely alliance with a white man nearly twice his age.
He and Cody are now closer friends: “You know, if he wasn’t white he could be my father,” says Chappell.
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints