L to R: Michael Donald and Jeff Sessions
News Analysis by: Zack Carter and John Zippert
President Donald Trump has nominated his early supporter, Alabama U. S. Senator, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, for the position of Attorney General of the United States.
Questions remain about Jeff Sessions position on civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, hate crimes, criminal justice and many other issues that will face Sessions if he his confirmed as the nation’s chief prosecutor and law enforcement official.
The Democrat previously published in our December 28, 2016 issue an extensive statement by the Alabama New South Coalition and the SOS Movement for Justice and Democracy in opposition to Sessions nomination (see http://www.greenecodemocrat). This statement concentrates on Sessions role in the selective and unsuccessful prosecution of the “Marion Three” in 1985/86 as the beginning of a national Republican effort of voter suppression that continues to this day.
We have recently seen paid TV ads advocating the confirmation of Sessions as U. S. Attorney General in which he proclaims himself, “a champion of civil rights and an advocate of criminal justice”.
In this story, we look back at Sessions’ role as U. S. Attorney for the Southern District, based in Mobile, in the notorious case of the Klan lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile from 1981 to 1989.
The lynching of Michael Donald – March 20, 1981
On March 20, 1981, Michael Donald, a 19 yr. old African American trade school student was found hanging from a small ornamental “popcorn” tree on an old residential street, across the street from where several Klansmen lived. Michael’s body was crumpled from beatings and his neck slashed. The brutally slayed young man was hanging hideously about a mile from Mobile’s City Hall and the Courthouse – where a KKK cross had been burned on the lawn the same night. The same courthouse where the recent trial of an African American, Josephus Anderson, ended in a hung jury – he was on trial for killing a white policeman, and claimed it was in self-defense.
Over time, it was established that four Klan members participated in the killing of Michael Donald. They were Bennie Jack Hayes, a local Klan leader, his son Henry Hays (age 22 at the time of the lynching), James Knowles (age 17) and Frank L. Cox (age 25) Hayes son-in-law, who supplied the gun and the rope for the crime.
From the Court records, Knowles confessed to the crime and according to the record:
“… Henry Hays and Knowles got a rope, which they tied into a hangman’s noose, and a gun from fellow Klansmen. [Knowles testified it was Frank Cox]. The two then set out to look for a black man. They randomly found Michael Donald, pulled alongside him in their car, and asked for directions. They forced him into the car at gunpoint. Knowles made Donald empty his pockets; Knowles’s trial testimony indicates he wanted to be sure the victim was unarmed.”
Hays found a desolate area and parked; all three men got out of the car. Facing Hays and Knowles (who was holding the gun), Donald jumped Knowles in an attempt to escape. After a struggle, Hays and Knowles forced Donald to the ground. Hays retrieved the noose, and the two of them put it around Donald’s neck. Hays dragged Donald while Knowles beat him with a tree limb; and when Hays’s hands began to hurt, they switched. When Donald collapsed, the two men dragged him, face first, across the ground. Autopsy reports showed Donald probably died from asphyxiation during this time. Nevertheless, Henry Hays slashed Donald’s throat. Donald’s body was found later that morning, hanging from a tree on Herndon Avenue.” (http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-11th-circuit/1304129.html)”
According to testimony by Assistant U. S. Attorney, Thomas Figures, an African-American attorney, who was working in Sessions office, made to the Senate Judiciary Committee in its 1986 hearing on Sessions nomination to become a Federal District Judge, Figures says that Sessions was reluctant to take up the Michael Donald lynching case.
Based on pressure from Michael Donald’s family, their attorney, State Senator Michael Figures (Thomas Figure’s brother), work by FBI investigators and local law enforcement, Sessions changed his mind. Sessions says he then pushed for Henry Hayes and James Knowles to be tried in state courts, where they could receive the death penalty, because at that time there were no provisions for the death penalty in Federal cases.
The testimony of Thomas Figures and four other Assistant U. S. Attorneys was instrumental in causing the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 to refuse to confirm Sessions for a Federal judgeship.
Figures testified to examples of his former boss’s alleged racial insensitivity before the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying Sessions had called him a “boy” on several occasions and had once told him that “he believed the NAACP, the SCLC, Operation PUSH, and the National Council of Churches were all un-American organizations teaching anti-American values.” On one occasion, when Figures upbraided Sessions’ secretary over what he felt was an inappropriate personal comment she made to him, he said Sessions had summoned him to his office and admonished him to “be careful what you say to white folks.”
In their investigation of the Michael Donald case, local law enforcement found that the three men Knowles, Hays and Cox were regular users of marijuana. This prompted Sessions classic and often repeated statement, “ I used to respect the Klan, until I found out that many of them smoked pot.” An FBI agent confirmed hearing Session’s remark as well, albeit the FBI agent felt it was ‘just parlor humor’. But we all know that jokes, especially at the expense of others, usually reveal what is in a person’s heart!
In 1983, James Knowles was sentenced by a local Mobile Court to 99 years in state prison; Henry Hays was sentenced to death for murdering Michael Donald. After routine appeals, Henry Hays was the first white person executed in Alabama for murdering a Black person.
What happened to Bennie J. Hays and Frank Cox?
There were four people involved in the Michael Donald lynching. We have accounted for two, what happened to the other two – Cox and Bennie Hays. And what was Jeff Sessions role in their prosecution?
Sessions, who was reluctant to handle the case, turned the prosecutions over to Mobile D. A. Chris Galanos for local action. In 1985, Galanos indicted the two – Bennie Hays and Frank Cox for “conspiracy to commit murder”. When the case went to trial Mobile Circuit Judge Zoghby had to dismiss the case because conspiracy has a three-year statute of limitations and the case was filed after three years had passed. Bennie Hays died during the trial and Cox walked free.
Sessions has never been asked why he didn’t pay closer attention and supervision to the case and allowed the local D. A. Galanos to seek an indictment for conspiracy after the time had expired. Was this action deliberate on Sessions part? Did he allow the indictment on a lesser charge when he knew the statute of limitations had run? Does this call into question his sensitivity and skills as a prosecutor? What will this mean on other critical cases if he is confirmed as Attorney General?
Meanwhile Attorney Michael Figures assisted by the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a civil lawsuit against the Klan on behalf of Michael Donald’s mother. In 1987, they won a million dollar judgment against the United Klans of America and forced them to sell their office in Tuscaloosa with the proceeds going to the Donald family. The civil case also brought out more evidence against the perpetrators.
In 1989, Frank Cox was found guilty of murdering Michael Donald and sentenced to 99 years in state prison. Cox was released after only 11 years in 2000. Knowles was released in 2010 after 25 years in prison. What role did Jeff Sessions play in the early release of Frank Cox, who supplied the gun and the rope for Michael Donald’s lynching, has he ever been asked?
In addition to Jeff Sessions insensitivity on the murder of Michael Donald, we have many other instances where he showed little concern for the conditions of Black and poor people.
Jeff Sessions was the only Gulf Coast Senator to vote against Senator Richard Shelby’s bill for supplementary assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Paul Nelson, a 4th generation fisher from Alabama’s Gulf Coast and commended by a Mobile County’s administrator for for his key role in getting 301 homes rebuilt with Katrina CDBG funds said: “Senator Jeff Sessions did nothing for the people he represents who were devastated by Katrina! So how can he be trusted to represent justice for all in our courtrooms.”
Zack Carter is a community organizer who helped bring national attention to unjust Katrina and BP recovery policies.
He was trade union activist in Mobile during the 1980’s and advocated for Labor to speak out against the Klan lynching of Michael Donald.. John Zippert is Co-Publisher of the Greene County Democrat.