Stoner v. State

Citation418 So.2d 171
Decision Date20 April 1982
Docket Number6 Div. 342
PartiesJesse Benjamin STONER v. STATE.
CourtAlabama Court of Criminal Appeals

Jesse Benjamin Stoner, pro se.

Travis Buckley, Ellisville, Miss., for appellant.

Charles A. Graddick, Atty. Gen., and Joseph G. L. Marston, III, Asst. Atty. Gen., for appellee.

HARRIS, Presiding Judge.

Appellant * was indicted on the charge of unlawfully exploding dynamite dangerously near an inhabited dwelling. The indictment reads:

"The grand jury of said county charge that, before the finding of this indictment, Jessie Benjamin Stoner, alias Jesse Benjamin Stoner, alias J. B. Stoner, whose name is to the Grand Jury otherwise unknown, willfully and unlawfully set off or exploded dynamite or other explosive in, under or dangerously near to the dwelling house of, to-wit: Mark E. Roberson, in which there was at the time a human being, to-wit: the said Mark E. Roberson."

The sufficiency of the evidence is raised by a motion to exclude the state's evidence and a motion for a new trial. The trial court denied both motions. We are put to a review of the evidence.

This case arose out of the attempted bombing of the predominately black Bethel Baptist Church during the racial tensions that existed in Birmingham in the late fifties and early sixties. In the early morning hours of June 29, 1958, members of the Bethel Baptist Church noticed smoke rising from a paint can placed next to the church. After the men had moved the bomb away from the church, the bomb exploded, causing considerable structural damage to the church and the surrounding inhabited dwellings. After a long delay, appellant was indicted for the crime and tried by a Jefferson County Circuit Court jury. Appellant was found guilty and sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

Summary of the Evidence

The state's first witness was Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a prominent leader of the Birmingham civil rights movement. Reverend Shuttlesworth was pastor of the Bethel Church when the church was bombed. Around 1:30 a. m. on the day of the bombing, Reverend Shuttlesworth was awakened in the parsonage by a strong vibration which caused him to fall from his bed. Reverend Shuttlesworth immediately ran to his church and noted that the church had sustained a good deal of damage from some sort of explosion. He then called the local police and the F.B.I.

On cross-examination, Reverend Shuttlesworth testified that he never saw appellant in the vicinity of the church.

Luverne McWilliams lived with her parents across the street from the church and next to the parsonage. Around 1:30 a. m. on June 29, Ms. McWilliams was given a ride home from work. While standing on her porch she noticed near the church a five gallon paint can with smoke rising out of it. She called to the guards who immediately ran to the can and moved it to the street. The can exploded, breaking out the windows of her house.

Ms. McWilliams' sister, Robbie Revis Smith, testified that, shortly after her sister had come home, she heard a loud explosion which broke out her windows, knocked the front door off its hinges and cracked the plaster. She too noted that the church had been considerably damaged.

Mark Roberson also lived across from the church. After the explosion awakened him, he noticed that the explosion had blown out his windows, causing sheetrock to fall, and had broken household objects. Debris from the explosion also dented the house's structure.

C. S. Johnson, a member of the Bethel Church, was on guard the morning of the explosion. He and the other guards were behind the parsonage when Ms. McWilliams called out that she saw smoke near the church. The guards, on approaching a paint can, recognized it as a bomb. One of the guards, Will Hall, moved the can to the side of the street where it exploded.

Mr. Johnson also testified that, in June 1958, just prior to the bombing, he and other church members were standing guard outside the church while a church meeting was being held. Mr. Johnson stated that appellant walked up to the church and asked to see Reverend Shuttlesworth so that Reverend Shuttlesworth could pray for him. After a guard refused appellant's request, appellant paused a moment and then walked away.

Aaron Rosenfield was the Fire Marshal during the time of the bombing. He had general training in the use of explosives, and had specifically studied the nature of dynamite. On the morning of the explosion Mr. Rosenfield investigated the area around the Bethel Church. He observed a round hole near the church, and detected a distinct odor of dynamite. It was his opinion that dynamite had been used. Mr. Rosenfield also testified that he had periodically returned to the church, the last time being one or two years before the trial.

Sergeant E. H. Cantrell of the Birmingham Police Department testified that, just prior to the trial, he had made measurements at the place of the bombing. The distance from the explosion to Mark Roberson's house was some 132 feet. Mr. Cantrell also stated that his part of the investigation had been going on for some four or five years prior to the trial and the investigation report in this case was an "ongoing report."

Lieutenant Tom Cook, a retired Birmingham police officer, was also called to the scene of the church bombing immediately after the explosion. He saw a large hole near the church and noticed that the church was damaged.

Lieutenant Cook testified that he was involved in a conversation with appellant on June 21, 1958, a week before the bombing. Also involved in the conversation were a fellow officer, Captain G. L. Pattie, and a Klan member turned informer, Hugh Morris. Captain Pattie was deceased at the time of the trial.

The conversation occurred inside a parked car in a Birmingham hotel parking lot. The police officers were undercover and Cook introduced himself as "Ted" Cook, while Captain Pattie introduced himself as "Edwards."

The police detectives told appellant that they were Birmingham steel workers interested in "the movement." Captain Pattie told appellant that they were interested in a possible bombing similar to the unsuccessful attempted bombing of a Jewish synagogue the previous April. Captain Pattie said that they were interested in helping whoever had been doing this type of thing but they were not interested in a "dud" like the synagogue bomb.

Lieutenant Cook further testified that appellant stated that he could handle any type of bombing and that he had people who were experts at bombing. If these people were paid, they would agree to set a bomb that would go off and damage almost any sort of building. Appellant allegedly claimed that for $2,000 he would get his people to make a bomb and place it wherever the officers suggested. No particular target was designated, but several targets were mentioned including the Bethel Church and the Birmingham News.

When the Bethel Church was mentioned by one of the officers, appellant replied that he knew where the church was and was familiar with the layout because he had been to the church. Appellant observed that the church would be difficult to bomb because of its all black neighborhood location, but he and his boys would bomb any place, including the Bethel Church.

Appellant then said that he could obtain explosives without signing for them. He also stated that he had seen a bomb already made up which consisted of loose dynamite placed in a bucket.

Lieutenant Cook testified that no agreement was made to bomb the church or any other target. The conversation ended when Lieutenant Cook told appellant that his group could raise the $2,000 and decide on a location and they would notify him.

The Bethel Baptist Church was bombed on June 29, 1958. On July 12, 1958, the same participants in the first meeting met again at the same location. Lieutenant Cook testified that appellant began the meeting by stating that "his boys" had done the job and wanted their money. The officers then discussed with appellant the possibility that members of the Bethel Church had committed the bombing to get sympathy and attention. Appellant replied that "we four know they didn't do it and the blacks know they didn't do it." Appellant further stated that his boys had decided to go ahead with the bombing to ease the officers' fear of a botched job and to show the officers what type of job they could do. Appellant correctly described where the bomb had originally been placed and correctly described the bomb used.

Lieutenant Cook testified that, after the officers refused to pay $2,000, appellant asked for one-half the money and asked to be paid the other $1,000 on completion of another job. When the officers refused appellant replied that he was afraid to go back to his boys empty-handed. When Lieutenant Cook was asked if appellant specifically indicated whether or not he had authorized the bombing, appellant's only reply was that he had unsuccessfully tried to call his boys and that he knew that they had come to Birmingham.

On cross-examination, Lieutenant Cook testified that Commissioner Conner wanted appellant to come to Birmingham to discuss the attempted bombing of the Jewish synagogue. Lieutenant Cook also testified that, after the second meeting, appellant never asked for the money.

At the close of Lieutenant Cook's testimony, the state rested. Appellant's first witness was Lieutenant Cook, who was recalled to the stand. Lieutenant Cook testified that his part of the investigation ended a few months after the second conversation with appellant and in his opinion the most fruitful investigation occurred during the second meeting. Lieutenant Cook further testified that he did not know why the case was delayed but he stated that the investigators turned over all of the information they had to the Justice Department in Washington.

Lieutenant Cook, as well as other officers, had maintained surveillance of the Bethel Church before the...

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    • United States
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