Johnnie Mae Chappell was shot and killed in March 1964 on the side of a Jacksonville road. The 35-year-old African-American mother of 10 was looking for her wallet as four white men drove past. One of them aimed a gun out the window and fired. Her family still seeks justice fifty years later. In a radio feature that debuted on the podcast Criminal yesterday, Lauren Spohrer told the story of the Civil Rights-era murder, and it’s worth a listen. Spohrer is a native of Jacksonville. She learned about Chappell's killing growing up here, as her eyes were opened to as some of the city's dark and painful history. Her father, Robert Spohrer, represents the Chappell family pro bono, and he spoke often about the case and the legal hurdles that make prosecution difficult.
In the story on Criminal, "Can't Rock This Boat," Spohrer interviewed her father, Chappell's youngest son Shelton, and the former JSO detective Lee Cody, 84, who cracked the case with his partner Donald Coleman. Cody and Chappell have tried for 20 years to convince the state of Florida to reopen the case. Robert Spohrer explained that the law limits the state's ability to do that.
"It doens't make a whole lot of sense. We know that 50 years ago there are men out there who 50 years ago were involved in a brutal murder. They confessed to their participation in that murder. and yet the state of Florida, for a number of reasons, cannot and will not bring them back to a courtroom. And that's the most frustrating thing for me, is to try and sit and talk to Shelton and his brothers and sisters and explain how that can be," Robert Spohrer said.
Spohrer also interviewed me, as I wrote a cover story about this case in 2006. (It appeared in both Folio Weekly and Orlando Weekly.) Spohrer remembered the story, and so do I. I interviewed the man who fired the gun that killed Mrs. Chappell, and the only one of the four men in the car that night who was tried. Like all the men, J.W. Rich was charged with first-degree murder. An all-white jury found him guilty of manslaughter in 1964. The other three weren't prosecuted.
I found Rich in a Jacksonville bar off Lem Turner Road where he spent most of his time. Rich told me then that the bullet he fired that night hit a stop sign and didn't strike Chappell. The bartender at the Triangle and Rich's supporters also told me he was innocent, that he was was a nice guy who wouldn't hurt anybody. It was like he lived in a bubble there at the bar, I told Spohrer, where the murder never happened.