Ala. Murder Case Remains Unpunished
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) _ Willie Edwards Jr. was a 25-year-old rookie truck driver for Winn-Dixie supermarkets when he was called into work on the afternoon of Jan. 23, 1957. He never returned home.
Edwards’ truck was found later that day with the door open, the keys in the ignition and some cheese and crackers on the front seat.
Authorities have long believed Edwards was abducted by four men with ties to the Ku Klux Klan who mistakenly believed he had made advances at a white woman. The group allegedly took him to the Tyler Goodwin Bridge in Montgomery and forced him, at gunpoint, to jump into the Alabama River.
His death was ruled a drowning.
Now, more than 40 years after the death, a grand jury has returned no indictments against his attackers despite a deathbed confession from one alleged suspect and the cooperation of another.
``I was very, very upset with it, because I had the impression that we were going to get an indictment,″ Edwards’ widow, Sarah Salter, said Tuesday from her home in Buffalo, N.Y.
Montgomery County District Attorney Ellen Brooks said the grand jury declined to indict because of insufficient evidence and previous immunity agreements. Two of the four suspects have died.
It was the family’s second attempt to resolve the case that began when the body of Edwards was pulled from the river by a fisherman three months after he vanished. Edwards left two children and a third on its way.
According to grand jury testimony from Raymond Britt Jr., who turned government witness, he and three other white men went looking for a black delivery man who supposedly had made a pass at a white woman. They found Edwards.
By the time his body was found months later, officials said advanced decomposition made determining a cause of death impossible. Edwards’ death was treated as an accident until 1976, when the state attorney general’s office began to re-investigate.
That year, Britt, Henry Alexander, Kyle Livingston Jr. and James York were indicted. The case was later thrown out because the judge ruled prosecutors had failed to establish how Edwards died.
Alexander, who died in 1992, confessed to the killing on his deathbed, according to his former common-law wife, Diane Alexander. She did not reveal the confession until 1993.
In 1997, Edwards’ family asked Ms. Brooks to re-open the investigation and had the body exhumed. After testing, Judge Charles Price ordered the state to change Edwards’ cause of death from ``unknown″ to drowning.
Homicide became the official reason.
Britt, the only living suspect who has admitted to participating in the slaying, could not be prosecuted because he was granted immunity in 1976 after agreeing to cooperate in the case.
At that time, Britt claimed Livingston was one of the four men who forced Edwards off the bridge, but later recanted and said he had mistakenly identified Livingston.
Livingston has denied involvement, telling The Montgomery Advertiser on Monday, ``I’m tired of my name being connected to it.″ Britt did not return a message left Tuesday at his home in Jackson, Miss. York has died.
Despite concluding that ``Edwards was murdered in Montgomery County by members and-or associates of the Ku Klux Klan,″ grand jurors refused to return any new indictments two weeks ago.
``It’s my opinion, as a prosecutor for nearly 20 years, there is insufficient evidence to pursue criminal prosecution for any of the people responsible for the death of Willie Edwards,″ Ms. Brooks said.
Malinda Edwards, 45, daughter of the slain man, said she is exploring her options and has begun consulting other attorneys. ``None of this adds up to me,″ she said from Columbus, Ohio. ``I just cannot let this rest.″
Neither can Mrs. Salter.
``I will not stand still until I get justice for him. I’m going to keep on if it takes the rest of my life to do it,″ she said.
Ms. Edwards and Mrs. Salter both say they want the men responsible for Willie Edwards’ death to pay a price for their crime.
``I’m quite sure they have lived a good life and they have not been prosecuted,″ Mrs. Salter said. ``It doesn’t seem like it’s going to get anywhere, not in Montgomery, Alabama.
``I don’t understand it, and I never will understand it,″ she said. ``I don’t know the law very much, but I just feel like things weren’t done right.″