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Random Thoughts

A tragic tale, part 8


September 9, 2022

In the summer of 1971, Jesse Hill Ford went on trial in Humboldt, Tennessee, for shooting George Henry Doaks Jr. the previous November. Ford faced the possibility of conviction of murder or the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.

Ford’s lawyers argued that the highly regarded author should be acquitted because, they said, he was acting only to protect his property and family from an intruder.

The defense team also employed the age-old tactic of casting doubt on the character of the victim. Doaks, a 21-year-old African American from Humboldt, was a soldier.

But at the time of his death, he was “away without leave” (AWOL) from the army. Moreover, the woman with him the night he died was not his wife (to whom he had been married only a few days).

The defense also alleged that Doaks and his female companion were on Ford’s property to engage in a romantic encounter – which the woman (who was Doaks’ cousin) denied. She said they (and the child she was babysitting) had merely gotten lost on the way home from an ice cream parlor.

Indicative of the times in which the trial occurred, the jury pool contained no women! Moreover, of more than 130 potential jurors, only a handful (less than 10) were African Americans in a town where Caucasians were only slightly in the majority.

The jury chosen for the trial consisted of 11 white men and one black man, a retired schoolteacher. Ford’s lawyers wanted an all-white jury but Ford insisted that at least one African American be on the panel.

After a two-day trial, the jury quickly voted to acquit Ford of murder. But the vote on conviction for manslaughter was 11-1 for acquittal with the black juror voting “guilty.”

He eventually, however, changed his vote because, he said, everyone in town would know that he was the holdout juror and, therefore, he feared his family would be in danger.

So, Ford survived his criminal prosecution, but other trials (personal and professional) awaited him – as we will see next week.


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