Thursday, January 26, 2023

John Hailman’s From Midnight to Guntown: Try It Again

{E6DEFE01-EA61-4BE0-8C90-6B1C32E68B47}Img100As 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 tenth installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman: Try It Again, Frank8

Justice was almost defeated in one bank robbery case because of my overconfidence.  Although frequently warned of racial solidarity among jurors, I had had so much success convicting black defendants with mostly black juries that I grew complacent.  One of the most vigorous defense attorneys in those days was Charles Victor McTeer, a soft-voiced 300-pound ex-football player from Maryland who moved to Greenville to be a civil rights lawyer.  The big difference between Victor and other civil rights attorneys was that he also intended to make lots of money and as the saying went “do well while doing good.”  He succeeded richly, driving a new Mercedes, and flying his own plane.  His daughter Heather, also a lawyer, was for several years Mayor of Greenville.

One day a young man named Nathaniel Johnson robbed a bank on South Main Street in Greenville just a block from where I once lived on the south end of Arnold Avenue.  The robbery was a violent one and the black victim teller suffered a miscarriage and lost her late-term baby as a result, so we took the case especially seriously.  One of our best FBI agents, John Canale of the prominent Memphis family was assigned to the case.  John did a brilliant job lining up evidence, including a unique candlestick from the defendant’s house whose bottom unscrewed.  Inside, the defendant had rolled up and hidden several hundred dollars in bait bills.  The case looked like a lock, but Victor refused a plea agreement and confidently announced ready for trial.  With equal confidence I also announced ready, and using hardly any challenges picked a jury that was mostly black.  The Marshals, always our best allies, warned me right away from what they heard through the jury room door that I was in trouble with my jury. They were mesmerized by Victor McTeer and his civil rights reputation.  In criminal trials prosecutors try to keep things serious.  Humor usually favors the defense.

One sign I always look for is what happens when defense attorneys try to make a joke.  If jurors don’t laugh, I’m on solid ground.  But if they laugh with the defense attorney, I am usually in trouble. In his opening statement McTeer ridiculed the idea that his client would be so stupid.  He called the loot from the robbery “chump change,” a phrase I had never heard till then.  But the jurors clearly knew it and laughed aloud along with Victor.  Their minds soon seemed made up and closed to all our evidence.  I began to feel bad for John Canale, who had really suffered along with the victim bank teller through her miscarriage and poured his heart and soul into the case.  I couldn’t stand the idea that this violent criminal might go free to rob again.  Near the end of the trial local district attorney Frank Carlton came in to watch.  I told him at a recess how things were going.

As I fretted, Frank took action.  When the jury returned with the stunning but not unexpected “not guilty” verdict, Frank was ready.  As the defense celebrated and the jurors smiled, Judge Keady tried to gavel the crowd to order. Frank approached the bench.  “Your Honor, as an officer of the Court I’d like to know how you want me to proceed.  I have a state arrest warrant for this defendant for armed bank robbery.”  Judge Keady chuckled:  “Has he robbed another bank already?”   Carlton smiled.  “No sir, this one.  This verdict was pure and simple jury nullification of a good case and we don’t intend to tolerate it.  Shall I arrest him here or wait and take a chance he’ll escape out a back door?”  Judge Keady never hesitated.  “Arrest him where he stands.”  The Judge, a racial moderate vilified by what he called “confederates” as a liberal on racial matters, amazed me by his next statement, made right in the presence of the acquitting jurors:  “This man clearly robbed a bank right here in our city, abused the poor black teller, and does not need to go free to rob again.  Take him away.”  The jurors looked surprised, then embarrassed, hearing the judge stress that loss to the teller, not the bank.

The Sheriff took Johnson down the street to the state courthouse where he was arraigned and Victor McTeer appointed to represent him.  Since the witnesses were still around and Victor was clearly prepared, a new trial began the next morning.  I was too embarrassed to go watch, but Frank called me the next day and told me the jury had convicted in less than an hour and the state judge had given the defendant a long sentence on Parchman Farm, a much worse place than any federal prison.

But what about double jeopardy?  Doesn’t the 5th Amendment say that no one shall be twice put in jeopardy for the same offense?  Yes, but there is an important exception.  If the prosecution is by another “sovereign,’ as in the federal vs. a state government, the double jeopardy clause does not apply.  In federal court the principle is called “dual prosecution.”  If a defendant has been acquitted in state court, say for a bank robbery, he cannot be re-prosecuted in federal court for the same robbery unless the Attorney General in Washington personally approves the second prosecution.  But state prosecutors are not so limited.  This exception to double jeopardy law has been challenged several times in the U.S. Supreme Court, but always without success.  Thanks to that strange twist in the law, the bank teller received justice after all, and state-federal cooperation did its work.

Click on the firstsecondthird fourthfifth,  sixth,  seventheighth or ninth installment of John Hailman’s From Midnight to Guntown to read.