Convicted of murdering a black police officer in 1969 in Woodville, Mississippi, Leon Chambers was sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was overturned in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the exclusion of witness testimony deprived Chambers of a fair trial.
On June 14, 1969, several Woodville, Mississippi, policemen were in the process of arresting C.C. Jackson, a young resident of Woodville, at Hayes Café, a bar and pool hall. However, they were met with resistance from a group of 20 to 30 black men, and they subsequently called for back-up to assist in the arrest. After three deputy sheriffs arrived, the officers again attempted to make the arrest, which resulted in a number of shots being fired. Aaron Liberty, one of the policemen, was shot in the back with a .22-caliber gun. In retaliation, Liberty turned and fired into the crowd, striking a young black man, Leon Chambers, in the head and neck. Chambers collapsed as the other men in the group fled the scene. Liberty was taken to Centreville Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
One deputy later testified that he saw Chambers shoot Liberty. Another testified that he could not see if Chambers had a gun, but saw him “break his arm down” shortly before the shots were fired. The officers, assuming that Chambers was dead, attended to Liberty. However, several of Chambers’ friends noticed that he was alive and took him to the hospital. He was later arrested and charged with the murder of a police officer despite the fact that authorities learned he had never owned a .22-caliber pistol. Also arrested and charged was another patron of the bar, James Williams.
On November 10, 1969, Gable McDonald, one of the men in the group who had witnessed the crime, confessed to authorities that he had shot Aaron Liberty. He had left the state after the killing but returned several months later. However, shortly after his confession, at a preliminary hearing, McDonald repudiated his confession, claiming that his preacher, Reverend Stokes, had coerced him into wrongfully confessing to the murder.
McDonald told authorities that: “He [Stokes] asked me about owning the killing of Sonny Liberty. I told him I couldn’t do that. I said if I do they’ll send me to the pen owning something like that. He said, no, the law ain’t going to know nothing about it. He just wanted the statement. Wasn’t no law or nothing. I wouldn’t have to go to jail or nothing. He said he would sue the Town for so many thousand dollars and he said that would be divided between the three of us. I disremember now how many thousand dollars it was.”
The men referred to were James Williams, Leon Chambers and Gable McDonald.
Three men told authorities that on separate occasions, McDonald had confessed his guilt. However, the prosecution claimed that these testimonies were hearsay, and, therefore, inadmissible. As a result of Mississippi’s “hearsay rule,” Chambers was unable either to cross-examine McDonald or to present witnesses in his own behalf who would have discredited McDonald’s repudiation. The Court affirmed the prosecution’s argument and the witnesses were not allowed to testify. McDonald was released from custody and authorities failed to investigate further his possible involvement in the crime. Chambers and Williams were tried jointly for Liberty’s murder. As a result of a motion for a directed verdict, Williams was released. On September 27, 1970, Chambers was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Chambers appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, claiming that he did not receive a fair trial because his main defense witnesses were not allowed to testify on his behalf. The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the conviction on June 28, 1971, again asserting that the testimony was hearsay and deferring to the hearsay rule.
In February of 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Chambers’ favor citing that “The trial of the Defendant was not in accord with fundamental fairness guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and Article Three, Sections Fourteen and Twenty-Six of the Constitution of the State of Mississippi.”
Expanding the opinion, the Court continued: “It seems to me that since the court had permitted the witness, Gable McDonald, to testify that he had confessed to killing the policeman, but denied the truth of the confession, the defense should have been permitted to show that McDonald had confessed to several persons. It must be remembered that witnesses testified that they saw McDonald shoot the policeman. It is abundantly clear that the witness was at the place where, and at a time when, he could have shot the policeman. Moreover, he was seen with a gun in his hand at the time of the fatal shooting.”
In mid-1973, following the reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court, charges against Chambers were dropped.
- Willie Jamison and Dolores Kennedy
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.