I’ve passed this unspectacular structure many times and never assigned it any importance. Located at a busy intersection a few miles east of Dawson on Highway 32, it doesn’t stand out. But on the bitterly cold morning of 22 January 1976, forty years ago today, it became the epicenter of some very unwanted national attention. Anonymous messages suggested I investigate the “story” behind this place. They didn’t want to say much about what happened here, but they said I could easily find it. And find it I did. From what I’ve read, the surviving actors in the case want little do with it and I certainly can’t blame them for that. This tragedy happened at a time of promise, a time when Jim Crow was supposed to be dead and buried and a progressive new South was lurching forward to catch up with the rest of the world. We certainly didn’t need the national media meddling in our local affairs. But in this case, they came knocking, loudly.
A generation ago, this place was known as Tiny’s Grocery. Linward “Tiny” Denton sold gas, ice cold beer, cigarettes and snacks and lived in a trailer behind the store. At 10:00 on the morning in question, 61-year-old Gordon D. “Bubba” Howell, Jr., a farm foreman from nearby Lee County and regular customer, was shot in the back of the head in what Denton reported as an armed robbery by five black youths wearing ski masks. Tiny kept a gun behind the counter and later claimed it was stolen during the commission of the crime. That gun nor any other weapon related to the case was ever recovered. $150 was stolen from the store and Bubba Howell’s pockets were cleaned out. Then the alleged perpetrators sped away in Howell’s truck and abandoned it at a pond less than a mile away. Howell died later at an Albany hospital. As Ben Holcombe wrote on the 25th anniversary of the case in the Albany Herald in 2001, “somebody got away with murder.”
A day after the incident, Tiny Denton called Terrell County Sheriff Jerry Dean and reported that he recognized one of the alleged perpetrators as 18-year-old Roosevelt Watson, who lived nearby with his parents. Watson was immediately taken into custody by Terrell County deputies and an agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). During his interrogation, Watson allegedly confessed to the shooting and implicated four others: his brother, Henderson; a cousin, J. D. Davenport; and two friends, James “Junior” Jackson and his brother Johnny. Doubts about their guilt emerged almost immediately. Roosevelt Watson said his admission of guilt was coerced. None of the defendants ever signed a confession. He told reporters at the time that they “told me they gonna put me in the electric chair…They had these two things hooked up to my fingers. Had a thing on my arm, real tight. Said they gonna electrocute me if I didn’t tell ’em.” This was later revealed to be part of the routine polygraph test, but a GBI agent did concede that in the process “there was talk of electrocution.” All five defendants were indicted on charges of armed robbery and first-degree murder, and if convicted, they faced the death penalty.
National media attention quickly followed, perhaps due to Dawson’s proximity to Plains and the burgeoning presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter. The defendants were dubbed “The Dawson Five”. All of this caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). They turned the case over to Atlanta-based Team Defense (an SPLC affiliate at the time), headed by Millard Farmer. Farmer was a white Newnan-born attorney who had gained notoriety for successfully defending blacks accused of killing whites in the South. Team Defense barraged the court with enough defense motions to delay the case for months.
After serving nine months in jail, Roosevelt Watson and James E. Jackson, Jr., were released on $100,000 bond, raised by the SPLC. No physical evidence linking any of the men to the crime was ever found; no gun, no fingerprints, nothing. None of the men had prior criminal records. Alibi witnesses stated that the defendants were two miles away when the shooting took place, drawing water from a neighbor’s well to haul to the Watson home.
In the months leading to the trial, national publicity persisted, with much ado about racial issues in Terrell County. A Dawson police officer testified in pre-trial motions that he saw Terrell County Deputy Jack Hammack point a gun at James E. Jackson, Jr. Mr. Jackson then testified that he only confessed after Deputy Jack Hammack threatened to kill him if he didn’t reveal the location of the murder weapon. Roosevelt Watson testified that his confession came only after threats of castration and electrocution.
Superior Court Judge Walter Idus Geer ended pre-trial motions on 11 August 1977 and after deliberation, set a trial date for Roosevelt Watson to 29 August. Judge Geer withdrew himself from the trial, however, citing ill health. Dougherty Superior Court Judge Leonard Farkas succeeded him on the case. In jury proceedings for State v. Roosevelt Watson, Farkas suppressed Watson’s confession and the state appealed. The Georgia Court of Appeals then overturned Farkas’s ruling on grounds that he didn’t preside over the previous evidentiary hearings. Judge Geer returned to the case in mid-November and, like Farkas, decided the confessions were improperly obtained. He also suppressed them, stating ”The evidence taken as a whole showed that the statements were not freely, voluntarily and intelligently made.”‘ On 19 December the prosecution rested and didn’t seek further appeal, citing that they didn’t “have much to go on.” And that was the end of the legal aspect of the case.
Roosevelt Watson died at the age of 34 in Albany in 1990. He had been working as a janitor at Albany State College before his death. His remaining family members told Albany Herald writer Ben Holcombe in 2001 that they didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Most of the other defendants felt the same way. They had nothing to hide, but they were past it. It understandably had a deep impact on all their lives. Johnny B. Jackson told Holcombe, “That gave a lot of people that didn’t have hope some hope to stand up for was was right. Sitting in jail for something you know you didn’t do and the people who have you behind bars know you didn’t do, that’s hard.”
Tiny Denton died at the age of 73, alone. The publicity of the case brought too much attention to Tiny’s Grocery and he kept irregular hours at the store. In “Town on Trial” Ben Holcombe wrote: Beverly Harrell, who often traded at Tiny’s…recalls Denton as a sad, reclusive loner. Out-of-town reporters often “harassed” Denton, she said, and others openly wondered if he had killed Howell, then fabricated a story to frame the Dawson Five. “They turned the story around like Mr. Denton did it,” Harrell said.
The families and loved ones of all the people involved were victims for a time, but Terrell County has moved on.
Various sources, with more reading can be accessed at the links below.
National Black Law Journal, 1983, via the University of California.
The New York Times, 1990, Roosevelt Watson Obituary.
Washington Post, 1977.
The following recounting of some particulars of the case were shared with me in 2018. The writer requested anonymity and I have granted and will continue to honor that request. It adds another layer to an already complicated case and wasn’t shared to change any minds or for publicity, just as a recollection:
I belatedly read your article, which brought back many memories. The District Attorney, John Irwin, became very ill during the preliminary stages of the prosecution. Originally the defendants had separate sets of lawyers, and Mr. Irwin was trying to work with the different lawyers. For some reason I never learned, he then asked for the death penalty. That is when Team Defense took over the case…The history I recall is that Tiny Roberts told the GBI agent assigned to the case, upon their first interview on the day of the incident, a description of the perpetrators, who were wearing ski masks, but it was not noted by the agent, who was working on one of his first cases. Several days later, another more experienced agent re-interviewed Mr. Roberts, who said that the perpetrators might have been the Jacksons, who lived down a dirt road quite close to the store. The investigators drove toward the residence, and saw where a truck had stopped on the dirt road. When interviewed, one of the defendants said that they had stopped, gotten out, and thrown the gun into the swamp. After the arrest, one of the defendants, Roosevelt Jackson, I think, waded in the swamp, looking for the gun. This was pictured by the defense as a very cruel tactic. One of the Terrell County deputies, Jack Hammack, said he showed his pistol to one of the defendants, asking if the pistol used looked like his. The deputy did not admit…pointing the pistol at anyone. The confessions were eventually thrown out on the basis that the legalese used in the waiver forms was too complicated for the educational background of the defendants. It never was revealed in court, but the search warrant that was executed at the farm house, and which found ski masks similar to the ones worn in the incident, was signed by a justice of the peace, who also went on the warrant’s execution. When I inquired about why he went on the raid, I was informed that the JP was also a deputy sheriff. When I learned that, I told Mr. Irwin we had to nolle pros [abandon] the case. The search warrant had also been thrown by Judge Geer out on unspecified grounds, and I was considering another appeal. This was after the judge-switching episode. The only evidence we had available after the confessions and the search warrant were thrown out was Mr. Robert’s eyewitness identification. Unfortunately, he had become quite upset from the publicity, and we could not vouch for his credibility.