By Charlene Shirk
First Coast News
JACKSONVILLE, FL -- The investigation into a 41-year-old civil rights killing is gaining more steam. Tuesday morning, the law offices of Spohrer Wilner Maxwell & Matthews announced it would take on the case of Johnnie Mae Chappell.
Chappell was killed during racial unrest in Jacksonville in 1964. Dressed in a white blouse and black and white print skirt, the mother of 10 had gone to search for her lost wallet along New Kings Road. She had just been to the grocery store and had brought ice cream to her children when she realized her wallet was missing.
Chappell asked two friends to come with her, and one of them brought a flashlight. As they searched the ground below their feet, Johnnie Mae was struck in the abdomen by a single bullet shot from a passing car. She bled to death while waiting for the only ambulance that transported blacks.
One man, J.W. Rich, 21-years-old at the time, was convicted of manslaughter and served several years in prison. The transcripts from his trial are missing from court documents, but his confession still exists. He told investigators that he and three other men were driving around the Northside and talking about the racial unrest in Jacksonville. They talked about "getting a n.......".
Then they saw Chappell and her friends walking down the side of the road and Rich says he picked up the gun and it "fired by accident." They knew they hit one person, but kept on going. Rich named the three others in the car that night.
A grand jury indicted all four men for first degree murder. Rich was the only one who ever faced a jury and no one can say why the other three never answered for their crime.
There's a new push to get the case back in front of a grand jury. Chappell's family and the law firm believe that if a grand jury indicted the men in 1964 of first degree murder, then a grand jury would make the same decision today.
Robert Spohrer says, "There is no question this woman was shot by this car full of men. The only legal question - is there evidence of premeditation. The grand jury thought there was in 1964 and I think there is today and I would like the state attorney to present it a grand jury and re-indict those men."
Her step-brother Ollie Hutchinson remembers Johnnie Mae as more than a victim of the racial tensions.
"She was jolly. She had always been outgoing and we all prayed together, stayed together and I just thank God for what's going on to get justice."
Her son Shelton has been trying to bring the three men in the car to justice since he was old enough to understand why his mother died. It is in his soul.
"We could have let this go, but it would have been a slap in the face to my mother."
Shelton Chappell now has big guns in his battle for justice. The same prominent law firm that took on bit tobacco years ago is taking on the Chappell case. They want the three others involved in Johnnie Mae's death re-charged with first degree murder. Court documents show they were indicted in 1964 but no one can explain why they never went to trial.
Whether the case ever makes it back to court, Johnnie Mae's family says as much as they loved her in life, they're even prouder that she's come to stand for the pursuit of justice in death.
Her sister, Earlene Hart, says it's "much bigger in death - ironic how you become important in death."
Director of the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission Charlene Taylor Hill also believes the best way to close this ugly chapter for the city and the family would be in a courtroom.
"Absolutely, I think that is the only way the family will feel that justice has been served for them is to have it heard in court. Regardless, the outcome at least they will have the chance to have a hearing in court."
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is wrapping up its investigation at the requested by Governor Jeb Bush. Its findings are expected within weeks. State Attorney Harry Shorstein says he will then make a decision whether he thinks the men can be recharged. Spohrer is also looking to see if the Chappell family is due any financial restitution from the state or civil reparations from the men involved.
First Coast News