Killing of Bernard Whitehurst

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Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. was shot in the back and killed on December 2, 1975 by Donald Foster, a Montgomery, Alabama police officer who said he thought Whitehurst was the suspect in the robbery of a neighborhood grocery store.[1][2][3] In a subsequent cover-up, police officers planted a gun on him.[1][4] The initial police report said that Whitehurst fired a gun at the officers, and the police returned fire.[4] There was no autopsy and the body was quickly embalmed before the family was contacted;[5] the coroner relied on police reports that Whitehurst was killed by a bullet fired through the chest.[5]

Six months later, after an investigation by the local newspaper and local attorney Donald Watkins raised questions about the facts of the case, the District Attorney ordered the body to be exhumed and an autopsy performed, which showed that Whitehurst had been shot in the back.[5] A perjury indictment was issued for three police officers.[4][5][6]

Eight police officers were forced to resign or were terminated.[4] No police officer was convicted of a crime.[4] The attempted cover-up led to the resignation of the mayor and the Director of Public Safety.

In October 1976, District Judge Robert E. Varner ruled that any conspiracy to violate Whitehurt's civil rights ended with his death.[5] Following the ruling, the jury returned a verdict in favor of former Police Chief Wright, his top aide, Swindall, and Foster.[5]

In 2012, the City of Montgomery acknowledged wrongdoing but no compensation has been given to Whitehurst's family.[4] The Montgomery City Council adopted a resolution that formally expressed regret for the shooting death of Whitehurst.[7] In April 2013, the City of Montgomery placed a historic marker that tells the story of the shooting and the police cover-up in Lister Hill Plaza across from Montgomery City Hall.[1][4][4] In June 2015, after the City rejected a request to rename a street for Whitehurst, an agreement was reached for the city to place a second historic marker near the spot where Whitehurst was shot and killed.[1] The second marker was dedicated on the 40th anniversary of his death in December 2015.[8]

Investigation by the Montgomery Advertiser[edit]

The Montgomery Advertiser investigated the shooting of Bernard Whitehurst by police and published news stories and editorials that questioned the original police reports.[5] To counter claims that his newspaper was fabricating stories, editor and publisher Harold E. Martin took and passed a polygraph.[5]

Resignations instead of prosecution[edit]

Law enforcement resignations[edit]

In 1976, three Montgomery police detectives faced perjury charges related to the gun found next to Whitehurst's body, though the only trial resulted in a mistrial. In an attempt to resolve the case, Alabama Attorney General William Baxley agreed that the police involved in the alleged cover-up would not be prosecuted if they passed a polygraph test.[5] Under the agreement, officers who refused to take the test or who failed would be terminated from their jobs.[5] The perjury case against the three officers was dismissed after they resigned instead of taking the polygraph.[5] Eventually, eight police officers were forced to resign or were terminated.[4][9] No police officer was convicted of a crime.[4] The city’s mayor, James Robinson, and the Director of Public Safety, Ed Wright, also resigned.[8][9]

Lawsuit[edit]

Acting as the administrator of Whitehurst's estate, his mother Ida Mae Whitehurst filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the fatal shooting and police cover-up deprived Whitehurst of rights guaranteed by the fifth, sixth, thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution.[2] In October 1976, District Judge Robert E. Varner ruled that any conspiracy to violate Whitehurst's civil rights ended with his death.[5] Following the ruling, the jury returned a verdict in favor of former Police Chief Wright, his top aide Charles Swindall, and Donald Foster.[5]

Legacy[edit]

A study of the killing by Foster Dickson was published in November 2018 by NewSouth Books.[10]


References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d "Man killed by Montgomery police in 1975 to receive another sign telling story of death". AL.com. Retrieved 2016-11-20.
  2. ^ a b "Judicial View > Federal Cases > Education > Whitehurst v. L Wright". judicialview.com. Retrieved 2016-11-21.
  3. ^ McPhillips, Julian (2016-03-31). Civil Rights in My Bones: More Colorful Stories from a Lawyer's Life and Work, 2005-2015. NewSouth Books. ISBN 9781603064170.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "City of Montgomery unveils marker recognizing police cover-up in 1975 shooting death of Bernard Whitehurst; family still wants apology (photos)". AL.com. Retrieved 2016-11-20.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m MacPherson, Myra (April 3, 1977). "Alabama's 'Watergate'". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 21, 2016.
  6. ^ Jet. 1976-07-22. p. 10.
  7. ^ "Resolution expresses regret for Whitehurst shooting". Retrieved 2016-11-20.
  8. ^ a b "Montgomery erects second marker honoring Bernard Whitehurst". The Montgomery Advertiser. Retrieved December 21, 2016.
  9. ^ a b "Top Police Officer in Montgomery Quits". The New York Times. February 6, 1977. Retrieved December 21, 2016.
  10. ^ Pell, Karren (October 25, 2018). "The Killing of Bernard Whitehurst". Midtown Montgomery Living. Retrieved October 30, 2018.