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Grand Jury, Athens, GA (Dec. 1946)

Pre-Grand Jury

This text below is an extract from Anthony Pitch’s book, “The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town” – Chapter 13

As the grand jury prepared to meet, nobody seemed to know for certain whether the federal government had any right to go forward with the case. By now hostility toward the FBI had diminished because agents had followed orders to take scrupulous care in their conduct. But Hoover regretted the FBI’s entanglement. Accumulated evidence tended to show that it should have been treated as a state murder, investigated solely by the GBI. Hoover had great misgivings about the FBI getting too deeply involved in the case because of the jurisdictional issue.

Even so, Hoover was having second thoughts. Maybe a grand jury would shake out leaks between the major suspect (Loy Harrison) or the Sheriff’s department to the gunmen. FBI S.A.C. Charles Weeks was still hopeful that a connection might be established between weapons that were seized and the appropriate firearms identifications thus providing credible evidence. There were close to 2,000 discharged veterans in Walton and Oconee counties and it was reasonable to suspect certain white veterans might have played a role in the murders. One element of this suspicion rested on the fact that many returning veterans had European-manufactured ammunition in their firearms, which might have been carelessly discharged in the course of the murders.

But just prior to the grand jury hearing, more than 40 weapons had been tested and no identifications were linked to the primary suspects. Ownership of guns used in the crime would not be admitted but search warrants could still be issued to search for weapons on the property of local residents. The Justice Department was doubtful witnesses would reveal any more than they had already told the FBI. But they left open the faint possibility that, faced with a grand jury, witnesses might give details they had previously withheld. In the weeks prior to the grand jury, Hoover ordered Weeks to prepare summaries reflecting witness discrepancies and the possibility of getting them to divulge more than they had already outlined.

Grand Jury: December 3, 1946

The text below is an extract from Anthony Pitch’s book, “The Last Lynching: How a Gruesome Mass Murder Rocked a Small Georgia Town” – Chapter 14

On December 3, 1946, District Court Judge T. Hoyt Davis convened a grand jury. The grand jury met for 16 days. According to one account, the FBI interviewed 2,790 people and the grand jury subpoenaed 106 witnesses. Twenty-three jurors were selected to serve on the grand jury. They consisted of merchants, coal dealers, a barber, a cotton gin operator, a banker, a laundry manager, a clerk and one retired farmer. Apart from the jurors, only three journalists were allowed in the courtroom during the 25-minute instruction by the judge. He told those empaneled to inquire “fearlessly and fairly.” Within the sixth day of grand jury testimony, Charles Weeks felt that most of the witness were lying. He told Washington about his concerns and that he was not getting information of any value. Weeks wanted to use a lie detector in court.

The U. S. Attorney supported him and even suggested machines should be turned on before the body assembled. But Washington quickly scuttled the idea. A physically weakened Barnett Hester was summoned to testify. He had a serious stab wound and had been hospitalized for three weeks, all of which had taken a toll on his body. He was followed by Loy Harrison – who shouted back at inquisitive reporters, ‘I don’t know a damn thing!”

An internal FBI memo revealed that they believed it would have been considered a serious mistake to have any ongoing investigation because the facts, to date, had failed to uncover any tangible evidence. Hoover thought the grand jury should be closed and advised the Attorney General to shut it down as soon as it completed hearing testimony. During the 16 days of testimony, it became obvious there was a clear conspiracy of silence; S.A.C. Weeks was convinced that many of the key witnesses were lying.

Worse yet, there were others who should have given testimony but were never called because they believed their lives might be in danger if they did. It was later discovered that one of the jurors was related to several of the witnesses thought to be part of the mob. Only certain blacks had testified – and then only after they felt safe enough to do so. The final statement was handed down on Dec. 19th. “We the grand jury have carefully investigated the killing of 4 negroes in Walton County, GA, on 7/25/1946. Numerous witnesses have testified and have been questioned exhaustively. Our attention is focused on the identities of the perpetrators. We have been unable to establish the identity of any person or persons involved in this crime.” Signed: Charlie S. Roe, Foreman