Monday, June 27, 2022

John Hailman's From Midnight to Guntown: Another Aberdeen Soap Opera

{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 thirteenth installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman: Another Aberdeen Soap Opera And A Pair of Girbaud Jeans11
One bank robbery case I vividly recall was that of a 19-year-old high school graduate named Frederick Franks.  His father was a successful, highly-paid executive at a local factory.  As the son of an affluent black family in rural Aberdeen, Franks was resented by his peers and sought to impress them.  Franks was a good athlete, but that was not enough.  He was educated, but as for many teenagers, that was more detriment than blessing. You had to hide your interest in ideas to fit in.  To be a big man in town, Franks decided to become a drug dealer since drug dealers had fine cars and plenty of money and women, while college graduates were something vague and far away and not quite real.  To set himself up in the drug business he needed money, but his father wouldn’t give him any unless he went to college.
Franks also needed firearms to be credible as a drug dealer and to defend himself, so he resorted to a foolish plan of financial self-help.  He robbed a bank just a few miles from his house.  The FBI agent assigned to the case was way more than a match for him.  Leonardo “Leon” Floyd was nearly as bright and ingenious as the man he was named for.  A formal professional football player and Atlanta policeman, Leon was one of my all time favorite FBI agents.  After interviewing the victim bank tellers, Leon and I met with local Police Chief Brent Coleman who checked his informants and got a tip that Franks was the robber and why he had done the robbery.  From tips out of local clubs we learned what happened.   Franks had made a clean getaway in his mother’s car, hid out at home for a while, then started buying drug-dealer clothes and guns.  He treated friends to several pairs of expensive, deep-pocketed Girbaud jeans from France, then the drug dealer pants of choice.  Leon and I interviewed the sales clerk, who recognized Franks’ picture.  The store still had some bait bills from the bank robbery in their cash register.  A local prostitute also testified, fearfully, about Franks’ sudden free-spending ways.  Even without a positive teller ID or a fingerprint, we got an indictment with our scared witnesses and circumstantial evidence.
At trial Franks actually made a good witness when he took the stand and denied the robbery, claiming he was home all morning watching TV with his 10-year-old brother.  In an interview his mother refused to alibi for him, which was unusual.  Franks claimed she had emotional problems and we decided not to put her through the ordeal of trial, not knowing which way she might jump under pressure.  We also didn’t have the heart to use an honest woman against her own son.  Franks therefore called his little brother to the stand to alibi for him instead.  The little fellow was clean-cut and clear-eyed and not nervous.  Yet some instinct told me something was not right about his testimony.
Leon Floyd had carefully timed the route from the Franks house to the bank and back, finding Franks could have made it to and from the bank and done the robbery in less than 20 minutes.  Thus the time he needed for his alibi was short, but it also tied him to a time-frame on which I could cross-examine him.  And just one mistake on the timeline would probably be fatal to his alibi defense given our witnesses and the fact that jurors tend to disbelieve alibis from family members anyway.  They always somehow sound wrong.
The little boy did surprise me from the stand when I asked him a standard question: “What programs did y’all watch on TV that morning?”  He recited calmly a one-hour kid show I’d never heard of plus a one-hour episode of Days of Our Lives.   The kid show came on just before Days.  “Do you remember what happened that day on Days?” I asked him. “Was Stefano on that day?”   He couldn’t remember.  “What about Bo and Hope?”   He couldn’t remember that either and didn’t seem to really know anything about Days, hardly a kid show.  The men on the jury looked at me blankly, but the women gave me knowing looks as if they appreciated that a mere male knew something about their daytime soap operas.  I gave silent thanks to my daughters for watching it while we were home for lunch.  I actually used to enjoy Days.  My wife was appalled, however, and thought we were all low-brows for watching it, but you never know what esoteric knowledge a trial lawyer may need.
The kid show was another matter.  I’d never heard of it and hesitated to cross the little boy because he clearly had watched it at some point and seemed to know it.  Using a normal trial lawyer tactic, I stalled till the lunch hour, hoping I would think of something to ask if given a little more time.  As soon as we recessed, Leon and I talked about what to do.  The newspaper!  The Daily Journal in nearby Tupelo ran a TV schedule every day.  I called a reporter at the Journal and he faxed me the TV schedule for the day of the robbery plus the other days of that week.  Miracle of miracles, the boy had not been prepped well enough.  The kid program he was talking about was on an hour after the robbery and was not even playing on the day of the robbery, but the day after.  It was sad to see the little boy’s pathetic, apologetic expression as he looked over to his big brother at counsel table admitting with his eyes that he’d let him down and gotten the alibi wrong.
Closing argument was emotional.  Rather than stressing the facts of the robbery, I touched on them just enough to remind the jury of them, then focused all my energy on the little brother.  Who could blame him for trying to help his big bubba?   I stressed the betrayal by Franks of his little brother’s innocence.  That cynical act was worse than the robbery itself I argued, worse even than his plan to betray his family by setting himself up as a drug dealer.  If these selfish and destructive acts did not show the heart of a bank robber then nothing could.  The jury convicted on both the robbery and firearm charges in less than an hour.
When Leon and the chief and I got through celebrating, I drove triumphantly back to Oxford.  Seeing on the edge of town my favorite used clothing store, Carol’s Thrift Shop, referred to locally as “Chez Carole,” I asked if she had any Girbaud jeans.  She had one pair in my size for $10.  They were comfortable and well-cut with deep pockets almost down to my knees.  They were even the right length.  I wore them for years.

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