- Selma and the Liuzzo Murder Trials: The First Modern Civil Rights Convictions by James P. Turner
On March 25, 1965, Collie Leroy Wilkins, William Orville Eaton, and Eugene Thomas, all Ku Klux Klan members, killed Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five from Detroit, Michigan, as she drove back from the Selma to Montgomery march on Route 80 in Lowndes County, Alabama. Unfortunately for the killers, one of their compatriots, Gary Thomas Rowe, was an FBI informant, and he relayed the events of that evening to agents. Local law enforcement and FBI agents corroborated Rowe's story with forensic evidence and the eyewitness account of Leroy Moton, who was in Liuzzo's car on the night of the shooting. James P. Turner, a former federal prosecutor for the Department of Justice, recounts the subsequent state and federal trials in Selma [End Page 504] and the Liuzzo Murder Trials: The First Modern Civil Rights Convictions. Turner assisted the prosecution in all three trials that resulted from the shooting. As such, the "book describes the story of the klan murder of Viola Liuzzo" largely from Turner's perspective, with references to newspaper reports and court documents (p. xv).
The prosecution of Wilkins, Eaton, and Thomas is important because it represented the first modern convictions of Ku Klux Klan members by a southern jury in the United States. Prior to the federal case, the state of Alabama had tried the three men for murder in two separate cases; the first ended in a hung jury, and the second ended in an outright acquittal of the defendants. The failure of the state prosecutions led the U.S. Department of Justice to try the defendants for conspiracy to deny Liuzzo of her civil rights. For several reasons, which Turner discusses in detail, the federal case proved successful, resulting in convictions, and the judge sentenced the three men to the maximum penalty of ten years in federal prison.
This book provides an excellent account of events, yet some of the broader implications of the case seem overstated—namely, Turner's contention that the Liuzzo case "heralded the birth of a brand-new tradition of equal justice under the law" (p. 96). Over the last several years, scholars and activists have demonstrated how the explicit and implicit racial bias of police, prosecutors, legislators, judges, and juries has contributed to a gross overrepresentation of African Americans in penitentiaries across the country. While the Liuzzo case set a precedent for federal intervention in civil rights cases, it does not seem that the Liuzzo case ushered in an era of criminal justice free of racial bias and discrimination.
Selma and the Liuzzo Murder Trials is an extremely accessible book that will surely be of interest to academics and nonacademics alike. The gripping details of events and conversations, and Turner's explanations of legal processes, read much like a John Grisham novel, complete with protagonists, antagonists, narrative twists that expose the problems of the American criminal justice system, and a conclusion that demonstrates how, at times, that flawed system can work properly. For anyone interested in the U.S. criminal justice system and the civil rights movement, this short book is worth the read.