December 17th, 1977

Georgia Prosecutors Drop Murder Charges Against Five Black Men Forced to Confess Under Threat of Death

On January 22, 1976, Gordon Howell, a cattle ranch worker, was shot to death in a one-room grocery store owned by Linward Denton, six miles east of Dawson, a rural town in southwest Georgia. According to testimony, Howell was shot by a group of young African American men who came into the store and slipped on ski masks behind a beer cooler before pulling a weapon. Denton identified Roosevelt Watson, who was then 19, as the gunman. Police also arrested his brother, Henderson Jackson, 21; brothers Johnny B. Jackson, 17, and James “Junior” Jackson, 16; and J.D. Davenport, 18, the Watsons’ cousin. All five young men were charged with murder and robbery. In preliminary hearings, the prosecution claimed the accused had confessed, and announced an intention to seek the death penalty.

The five men were represented by Millard Farmer of the Team Defense Project Inc. from Atlanta. Mr. Farmer contended that police coerced the defendants’ alleged confessions by threatening to shoot, electrocute, and castrate the young men. The prosecution’s case began to unravel when, in August 1977, a former police captain testified that he was present when a fellow officer jammed his gun into the forehead of one defendant, cocked it, and repeatedly ordered the defendant to confess, saying to him, “Okay, nigger, I want to know where y’all threw the weapons at.”

Following this testimony, Judge Walter Greer ultimately suppressed the confessions of three of the defendants, ruling that the illiterate young men could not have knowingly and intelligently waived their constitutional rights against self-incrimination. On December 17, 1977, the district attorney dropped the murder and robbery charges, saying that without the confessions there was not much of a case. Two of the defendants had spent one year in jail, and the other three had been incarcerated for almost two years. No one was ever convicted of Mr. Howell’s murder.