“It seems that I’ve been here before; I can’t remember when…” —Quoted material by Harry Chapin
ROLLING FORK — It has now been almost exactly eight years since I first saw the list of individuals pardoned by former Gov. Haley Barbour on his way out of office, a list that contained the name of Charles Hooker.
We did not know each other, and yet, we shared a history, Charles Hooker and I.
A school teacher by trade, 20 years earlier Charles Hooker had been sentenced to life in prison for the needless killing of a childhood friend of mine, Walter Johnson.
Walter and I had grown up together in the hamlet of Coahoma and we shared interests in music and basketball. He’d play a fair blues guitar and I would sing along with lesser skill at his house and we’d shoot hoops and drink Cokes in my back yard. He was black and I was white and such friendships were not run-of-the-mill in the mid-1960s, but fact was, we just liked each other.
From the first time we met, something had just clicked. Friendships are funny like that.
Later in life, he’d made his place and I’d made mine but we still were more apt to meet with a hug than a handshake and though Charles Hooker was convicted of killing him, I never for one moment believed he did.
Somebody killed my friend, all right, but it wasn’t Charles Hooker. Or, at very least, the state of Mississippi didn’t prove such.
As I wrote in the Clarksdale newspaper following a preliminary hearing in 1991, “Fans of the Barney Fyfe School of Criminal Investigation might greatly appreciate the one conducted into the death of Higgins Junior High School Principal Walter Johnson. I am not among them.”
Walter was found shot dead in his car on a country road not far from Clarksdale with the first investigator arriving there about an hour after the crime was first reported. What happened thereafter would make a manual for how not to investigate one:
• Two blond hairs discovered on the dead principal’s lips were somehow “lost.” Hooker is a black man with black hair.
• The contents of a beer can in the car were poured out, along with any saliva which might have been analyzed.
• Walter’s body was moved within the car and then the car itself was moved.
• The “murder weapon,” a pistol Hooker voluntarily handed over to police a week later, was never fingerprinted.
• None of the shell casings in Walter’s car were ever fingerprinted.
• A “pink Kleenex” found on the ground outside the car was deemed insignificant and never tested for what might have been on it.
Then came the trial, a trial which was about as bizarre a one since that of Franz Kafka’s fictional nightmare.
After four days of testimony in which Hooker received a good defense from a good then young lawyer who is now a circuit judge, and with no predicate in testimony, the jury was given a “ringer” of an instruction from the then presiding circuit judge.
Although Hooker had been indicted for murder and tried for murder, the jury was told it had to also consider whether Hooker had killed Walter “in concert with” or “aiding and abetting” any other human on the planet in so doing — in other words, conspiracy.
From its deliberations, the jury sent out a note asking just exactly what that meant, saying that its members did not understand the instruction involving conspiracy, but they received no clarification from the bench and were ordered only to continue deliberating.
And so, some hours later, and to the amazement of most veteran Coahoma County criminal justice observers, Charles Hooker was convicted by that jury of murdering Walter Johnson.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. In no way was justice served. But then again, as the great Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes once reminded a young attorney seeking it for another client, “this is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.”
And, at least in matters of crime and punishment, late is better than never. In what baffled and angered so many people 28 years before, a man was found guilty of a crime that he almost certainly did not commit and with the stroke of a gubernatorial pen, he was pardoned of it.
So, was justice served at last? You decide. Somebody killed Walter Johnson. Somebody murdered my friend. And if not Charles Hooker, then who?
“All my life’s a circle and I can’t tell you why. The seasons come around again. The years go rolling by.”
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.