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 twelfth installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman: A Stuttering Bank Robber10
Bank teller Bonnie Tate saw a man walk very fast past her drive-in window toward the front of the Bank of Commerce in Amory. He was a small black man but could not see his face. Moments later the same man entered the bank from the front door. He had placed a towel with a bright flower pattern over his face. The man stuttered badly. She finally realized he was saying “Give me all your money or I’ll blow your goddamn brains out.” The man took the money and asked for her car keys. She claimed she didn’t have them.
Eyewitness Loretta Cribbs testified that while washing dishes by her kitchen window behind Fred’s Store she saw a man run in the direction of Fred’s and pull off a jacket and cap as he went by. Mrs. Tate later identified the red baseball cap and dark blue windbreaker as items worn by the robber. She testified she saw him crossing the street toward a Fred’s Store and a Big Star grocery and rang the burglar alarm. Records at the police department proved the call was received at 11:34 a.m. Eyewitnesses Charles and Mary Nix testified that for several months they had supervised defendant James Earl Kelly at a local furniture factory. They saw Mr. Kelly across from the drive-in window of the bank around 11:30 a.m. on the morning of the robbery. Kelly was close enough to their car that Mrs. Nix could have touched him. Kelly was wearing a cap and a dark jacket and walking fast. They testified that Kelly stutters and that his speech is hard to understand, particularly for a stranger.
Eyewitnesses Elmer Walton and his brother Harvey and Harvey’s wife Judy all testified that at lunchtime on the day of the robbery they were in Fred’s when Kelly approached Elmer, whom he knew from the furniture factory. Kelly asked for a ride to a plant located ½ mile from Fred’s. Elmer agreed to take Kelly for $10. Judy Walton noticed Kelly had a plain towel, dirty white, hanging from his pocket. When the Waltons had driven less than a block from Fred’s Kelly told them he wanted to get out because “the police was hot on him and he had to get out of town.” He told them he had about $3,000 in cash on him from selling drugs. The Waltons did not know then that the bank across the street from Fred’s had just been robbed, but when they learned it later that evening, they reported Kelly’s unusual behavior to local police.
FBI Agent Wayne Hardy interviewed James Earl Kelly the following day with local sheriff Pat Patterson and Chief of Police Carl West of West Point, where Kelly resided. Kelly gave Hardy an elaborate alibi for his activities on the day of the robbery. Hardy testified Kelly first told him he drove from West Point to Aberdeen, where he arrived around 1 p.m. at a club called The Conspiracy Club or The Burning Spear. Kelly claimed he left The Conspiracy Club about 2:00 o’clock and went on to the Rainbow Bar to look for a dice game. Kelly told Hardy he was never in Amory at all on the day of the robbery. Hardy testified Kelly was unemployed and badly in need of money from August, 1983 until the robbery in November 1983. Kelly was way behind on his car payments before the robbery but made up all his payments as well as late charges right after it.
Defense attorney Dudley Williams presented several witnesses in Kelly’s defense. His wife Beatrice testified she went with him to pay bills before the robbery and arrived back at her mother’s house at 11:00 a.m. She claimed to remember the time because she did not want to miss her favorite TV program, “The Young and the Restless,” which came on at eleven. Jessie Moore of Aberdeen testified he too always watched “The Young and the Restless,” in his case because there was a character on the program nicknamed “Jazz” who supposedly resembled him. He testified that on the day of the robbery “The Young and the Restless” was not very interesting so he stopped watching it about 11:15 and went to a club called the Red-Hot Pot, across the street from The Conspiracy Club. Moore claimed he saw James Earl Kelly on his way and stopped with him at a bootlegger’s place and stayed with Kelly at the Red-Hot Pot for two hours drinking.
James Earl Kelly took the stand and testified more or less along the lines of the alibi he originally gave Agent Hardy. The most notable fact about Kelly’s testimony was not its content, however, but that he stuttered and was very hard to understand. His speech pattern was identical to that described by the victim teller and the Nixes and the Waltons, and the judge had to keep asking him to repeat himself because no one could understand him. Kelly testified he quit his job at the furniture factory after a dispute with Charles Nix and that Nix had a motive to lie against him. In an unparalleled whopper, Kelly testified he had not only had a sexual affair with the wife of Elmer Walton, but also with Judy Walton, wife of witness Harvey Walton, even after he heard all of them testify that neither woman had ever met or even heard of James Earl Kelly. On cross-examination Kelly denied that he had an unusual speech pattern saying, “I c-c-can t-t-talk f-f-fast and I c-c-can t-t-talk s-s-slow.” He insisted he carried a towel around only to wipe off his car after going through a car wash and stated “I n-n-never even r-r-robbed a p-p-piggy b-b-bank.”
On the night after the defense rested their case, we were all a little worried about how the jurors looked. I wondered if they thought I’d humiliated him about his stuttering. The evidence was powerful to us as veterans, but to this group of mostly uneducated factory workers, we figured it was possibly confusing. I was mainly concerned that the robber’s towel had bright-colored flowers on it while Kelly’s was plain white. I asked FBI agent Hardy to try to figure out some explanation for the discrepancy overnight. He did so beautifully.
On our rebuttal case the next morning, sheriff Patterson took the stand and blew their defense away with a towel agent Hardy had purchased the night before at Wal-Mart. With a dramatic flourish, Patterson first showed the jury that the towel was white on one side. Then he quickly flipped it over to reveal a flowered pattern on the other side, and how you would not notice it if you saw only one side hanging from his pocket and saw only the other side across a robber’s face as a mask. Several jurors gasped and began looking at each other and nodding.
The jury worried us a little by staying out over four hours. We had presented twenty witnesses and the defense eight and the jurors had sent in two different notes with questions about the jury instructions, especially about what “reasonable doubt” meant. But they finally returned with a unanimous verdict of guilty.