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 sixth installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman: No Further Questions in Mound Bayou
One of my personal favorite bank robber stories happened while I was a law clerk, long before I started at the U.S. Attorney’s office. It involved the robbery of a bank in Mound Bayou, an old, all-black town in the Delta on Highway 61. Al Moreton tried the case, but neither he nor I can recall the name of the robber nor can we find a file that resembles it. As the story has evolved in re-telling over the years, it goes like this:
In the 1960s a bank in Mound Bayou decided it was a good idea to station an employee at a desk by the front door who would greet customers as they came in, answer their questions and direct them to the proper teller or bank officer to transact their business, sort of like a greeter at Walmart today but with more authority. A serious, stern retired schoolteacher was hired for the position. She relished the authority, fitting somewhat the same role as Aunt Esther on Fred Sanford.
One day a young, impolite and decidedly un-southern “customer” walked in and strode straight up to her. “Bitch,” he said, “Give me some damn money and make it quick.” Totally unfazed, the retired teacher addressed him sternly and dismissively: “Young man, don’t take that tone with me. And by the way, if you’re such a bank robber, where’s your bag?” After a couple of menacing looks the robber lowered his gun, snorted and went on to the tellers, apparently concluding he’d get nowhere with the retired schoolteacher. The rest of the robbery was pretty traditional featuring loot, cameras, eyewitnesses and eventual apprehension.
At the trial the retired teacher took the stand and clearly and distinctly identified and pointed out the robber. On cross-examination the defense attorney tried some standard tricks. First he asked her about her age and her memory, which she resented. Then he questioned her eyesight, again stressing her age. Finally he asked her if it wasn’t true that she was so mad at the bank robber’s rudeness that it had clouded her judgment and caused her to want to identify his client whether he was the robber or not. The teacher replied, “Would you please repeat that question?” After a rambling, repetitious question the teacher replied in an outraged voice, “If you are trying to impugn my integrity, you can just forget about it!” The attorney quickly said “No further questions,” and withdrew from challenging her as fast as his client had.