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Old murder stirs emotion, evokes racial tension

The crime — a pregnant white newlywed raped and murdered, the chief suspect a black escapee from a chain gang — jolted residents of north Alabama's Jackson County in 1964.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The crime — a pregnant white newlywed raped and murdered, the chief suspect a black escapee from a chain gang — jolted residents of north Alabama's Jackson County in 1964.

The wanted man, Johnnie Daniel Beecher, lost a leg and his freedom in the aftermath of a furious manhunt.

Now 75, Beecher is up for parole again Tuesday.

Time, however, hasn't faded the feelings in the case, which evokes an era of powerful racial tension in Alabama. Relatives of the victim, Martha Jane Chisenhall, and the local prosecutor are urging the board not to release Beecher.

"From my perspective as prosecutor and a citizen, there are certain crimes so horrendous and heinous that a life sentence ought to mean just that, that those people never get out of jail," said Jackson County's current district attorney, Charlie Rhodes.

Chisenhall, 21, was kidnapped from her home near Stevenson in northern Alabama, raped and strangled, her body hidden beneath a pile of uprooted trees. Relatives said the young woman, married for seven months, had just learned she was pregnant.

A posse of several hundred outraged white men hunted the accused across the mountain and caught him in a field in Tennessee. Beecher was shot in the leg and forced at gunpoint to confess. Later, his gangrenous leg was amputated at a prison hospital. Injected with morphine after the surgery, he signed a confession.

The mishandling of the case by law enforcement and prosecutors led to three convictions being reversed, including two death sentences. Beecher did plead guilty later to murder and received a life sentence, avoiding the electric chair. He is incarcerated at the Bullock Correctional Center.

Parole board may consider Beecher's age
David E. Kendall, an attorney who represented Beecher in the 1970s, said he hopes the parole board will consider Beecher's age and how long he has been in prison. Beecher, whose case is going to the board for a seventh time, is not expected to attend the hearing.

The rape and murder happened in the same county where the notorious case of the Scottsboro Boys took place in the 1930s. That case, which drew international protests and became a symbol of racial injustice in the South, centered on accusations that nine young blacks had raped two white women on a train. Several of the young men spent years in prison, even after one of the women recanted.

State Rep. John Robinson, a teenager in Scottsboro at the time, said the attack on Chisenhall stirred up the racial animosity of the earlier case.

"Because it was black on white, it got people stirred up," said Robinson. "People formed posses and there were hundreds of people looking for Beecher. They brought in dogs from Montgomery. All the mountaineers had their shotguns out and their straw hats on."

U.W. Clemon, a prominent civil rights lawyer who later became the first black federal judge in Alabama, was one of Beecher's defense attorneys.

Clemon, who still serves on the federal bench, said the case helped end the use of chain gangs in the state.

Beecher, who was 32 at the time and serving a 10-year sentence for rape, had fled a work crew and allegedly broke into the Chisenhall home and kidnapped Martha Chisenhall after her husband, Raymond, had left for work.

"I think he came in the window in her home," said a sister, Mary Creasman, who is 66 and lives in Raleigh, N.C. "Back then everybody had their windows open."

Shot in the leg as he fled
During the posse's search, Beecher was spotted in Tennessee and shot in the leg as he fled into an open field.

A federal appeals court detailed what happened next: "He fell, and the local Chief of Police pressed a loaded gun to his face while another officer pointed a rifle against the side of his head. The Police Chief asked him whether he had raped and killed a white woman. When he said that he had not, the Chief called him a liar and said, 'If you don't tell the truth I am going to kill you.' The other officer then fired his rifle next to the petitioner's ear, and the petitioner immediately confessed."

Citing those facts, the court reversed one of the death sentences for Beecher in 1972.

Kendall, the defense attorney, called the first two trials "horribly flawed," but said it's hard to ignore that a young wife was abducted, raped and killed.

The horror remains for her family.

"I still have nightmares over it," said Katherine Humphrey Hurd, another Chisenhall sister. "I had just gotten a letter from her. She was excited about her first child coming."

Now 68 and living in Jacksonville, Fla., Hurd plans to be in Montgomery on Tuesday for the parole hearing along with other family members. She said she has already written a letter asking the parole board to deny Beecher's request to be released.

"It's so unfair to think he could get out on the streets and have a life," Hurd said.