As a federal prosecutor in Mississippi for over thirty years, John Hailman worked with federal agents, lawyers, judges, and criminals of every stripe. In From Midnight to Guntown, he recounts amazing trials and bad guy antics from the darkly humorous to the needlessly tragic.
In addition to bank robbers–generally the dumbest criminals–Hailman describes scam artists, hit men, protected witnesses, colorful informants, corrupt officials, bad guys with funny nicknames, over-the-top investigators, and those defendants who had a certain roguish charm. Several of his defendants and victims have since had whole books written about them: Dickie Scruggs, Emmett Till, Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort, and Paddy Mitchell, leader of the most successful bank robbery gang of the twentieth century. But Hailman delivers the inside story no one else can. He also recounts his scary experiences after 9/11 when he prosecuted terrorism cases.
John Hailman was a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oxford for thirty-three years, was an inaugural Overby Fellow in journalism, and is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Thomas Jefferson on Wine from University Press of Mississippi.
Here is the third installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman
Another of my favorite cases was technically not a bank robbery at all, but the burglary of the Post Office in Victoria, Mississippi in June of 1974. A veteran criminal named Johnny Paul Washam and two accomplices did the burglary, netting 679 readily negotiable blank postal money orders. Legally, to be a robbery the defendant must steal directly from a person, normally by use of a weapon or by intimidation, which is called a “strong-arm” robbery. Burglary, legally, is the taking of property by breaking and entering a residence or business with no one present. If someone is present, it becomes robbery, punishable more harshly because of the danger to the victim.
In the Victoria job the proof was slim and the witnesses few. For me it was a training exercise in which I mainly sat in and watched veteran prosecutor Al Moreton try the case. The proof was simple. A postal expert from the crime lab testified that shoeprints on envelopes found on the floor of the post office the morning after the burglary bore the imprint of an unusual shoe sole identical to one seized from defendant Washam, who claimed never to have been in that post office in his life. A search of their car yielded other evidence against Washam and the other two defendants, William Jan Hoover and Carrol Lee Wyatt. After their arrests, Washam jumped bond and was a fugitive for over a year, twice escaping from jails in Tennessee. In his absence, Judge Keady severed the trials of the defendants. Al Moreton first tried Wyatt in October 1974 and convicted him. Al then tried Hoover while Washam was still a fugitive. Wyatt had agreed to testify and gotten his sentence cut for agreeing to testify that Washam had planned the burglary and all three burglars had broken in together and stolen the money orders.
In his usual calm, cerebral way Al Moreton first called his shoe-print expert, who was impressive and unshaken on cross-examination. Then he called the accomplice Wyatt, who described in great and convincing detail how the burglars planned the job and committed it. As he always did, Al questioned the witness slowly, holding back the most vivid facts till the end of his examination to heighten the jurors’ interest. In this case Al held back the names of the perpetrators, planning to close with a dramatic in-court identification of Hoover by Wyatt. When he reached that critical point, Al asked Wyatt whether he saw in the courtroom one of his partners in the burglary. Wyatt made a big point of looking all around the courtroom. “No sir, I don’t.” I looked up at Al, whose grip on the podium had tightened, but who looked calm as ever. “Look again,” he said. The witness did. “Now do you recognize him?” Hoover replied, “No sir, sure don’t.”
Al tried a different tactic. “Alright then, do you recall the names of the men who were with you?” Wyatt replied firmly, “Yes, sir.” Encouraged, Al proceeded. “Alright then. Would you please look at the jurors and tell them the names of the two men who broke into the post office with you?” Wyatt looked straight at the jury and said, “Yes, sir. Their names are Ray Blackwell and Harvey Crowell.” This time I thought I saw Al’s knees buckle, but he never showed any surprise to the jury. In excruciating detail, he took Wyatt right back through the case: the planning, discussions, execution, getaway and apprehension of the burglars. Somehow, largely by his demeanor and grasp of details, Al seemed supremely confident of his case. Never did he raise his voice or accuse the witness of lying, but by his subtle sequence of questions he made it clear what had to have happened: With his sentence already cut in advance, Wyatt was lying to save his partner. The result: A hung jury. A month later, Al tried Hoover again. This time Wyatt testified for the defense and Hoover was acquitted.
In August 1975 Johnny Paul Washam was finally caught. Al put him on trial at once, with Wyatt again testifying for the defense. This time I participated as Al’s partner in examining witnesses and arguing to the jury. For the jurors, it had to be a tough case. They stayed out deliberating for two full days. When they returned, it was with a well-reasoned verdict which gave me an early lesson in juror wisdom. They found Washam guilty on the same evidence on which they’d found Hoover not guilty. One critical fact had persuaded them: Washam’s jumping bail. The judge had instructed the jury in the standard way that “flight of a person, when accused, may constitute proof of consciousness of guilt.” That instruction, from a federal judge, who is often regarded by jurors as speaking with God’s own voice, turned the tide.
At his sentencing Washam recited a poem about freedom he had written in his cell. The poem centered on the beauty of spring, the budding trees, the blossoming flowers and fresh air that he, Johnny Paul Washam, as a habitual offender in his 40’s, would never breathe again if the judge gave him the expected sentence. Judge Keady, a kind and philosophical man with a soft spot for a good con man, whether defendant or lawyer, surprised me. “Johnny Paul Washam,” he said. “You have a heart full of poetry and a lot of talent for persuading people of just about anything. But instead of using that talent for good, you have squandered it. You have become a menace to society.” He then proceeded to give Washam 20 years plus 4 years plus 4 more years, all to run consecutive to each other and to two other state sentences Washam still had to serve. The sentences virtually guaranteed Washam would die in prison. I always thought Judge Keady was influenced partly by the calm determination of Al Moreton in overcoming insurmountable odds to convict the recidivist Washam. It was as if the old judge could not let the old prosecutor down, and together they would protect society.
On appeal Washam’s main issue was the way I “vilified” him in closing argument. Years later, while writing the first draft of this book, relying on my memory alone, Al had to remind me of this fact. At first I didn’t even remember making the argument. When Al showed me the transcript, however, it was clear that the wording could only have been mine, not Al’s. Despite my inflammatory insults to the defendant, the 5th Circuit affirmed both convictions. But that was not the end of the story. Years later I was teaching a training course for new prosecutors in Washington, D.C. During a riotous time one late night, after lots of wine and trial stories, one of my instructors said “You should play a little trick on Washam. Get an AUSA from Hawaii to send a postcard from Honolulu to Washam in the federal pen.” I asked one of my Hawaiian friends to do it, and he did. At that time, I knew next to nothing about how much trouble inmates can cause prosecutors by claiming their rights were violated, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Anyway, I wrote out a little message for the AUSA from Hawaii to put on a postcard and send to Washam in federal prison in Atlanta. The postcard, which had a color picture of beautiful Hawaiian girls dancing the hula in grass skirts said simply:
“Dear Johnny Paul,
Having a wonderful time. Sorry about that bum rap you took.”
Sincerely, Harvey & Ray
At first I didn’t tell Al what I’d done. When I finally did tell him, he worried for a couple of years that Washam would use the card as proof that Ray Blackwell and Harvey Crowell really existed. Even if I admitted what I’d done, Washam would claim prosecutorial harassment. For whatever reason, Washam never complained. Maybe the postcard never arrived. Maybe some lonely inmate clerk stole the picture from the mail and kept it for himself. Maybe Washam enjoyed the joke. Maybe he was too embarrassed to admit he’d been had. Who knows what happens in federal prisons?