Promotions | Best of the Coast | Find a paper | About | Advertise with us | Contact
COVER STORY | Vol. 19, No. 5, March 25, 2010
(A Cycle Of Injustice?)

E-mail this to a friend

A Cycle of Injustice?

by Ryne Ziemba

A 1974 Death Reflects Present-Day Frustrations with Steen Case

Alphonse de Lamartine once claimed that "History teaches everything, including the future."

Many who have either witnessed or been a part of the protests involving the death of local teen Victor Steen have viewed the marches, city council meetings, and recently, the coroner's inquest with both awe and frustration.

At times, it isn't difficult to compare similarities between the protests that have happened as a result of Steen's death to the marches and protests that occurred surrounding the death rattle of segregation in the South.

While there have been many local incidents in the past several decades of deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers with no indictment by the State Attorney's Office, there is one incident which transpired in Pensacola in 1974 that particularly brings to mind the frustrations felt by those calling for further investigation into the death of Victor Steen.

THE INITIAL INCIDENT

It was on the night of Dec. 20, 1974 when Sheriff's Deputy Doug Raines pulled over 23-year-old Wendel Sylvester Blackwell after a high-speed chase. Blackwell didn't comply when first ordered by Raines. However, after Raines bumped his car, Wendel was forced onto the grass on Highway 29.

Raines ordered Blackwell out of the car, and while Blackwell's hands were on his head, Raines claimed he saw something shiny in the young man's hand.

In an act that Deputy Raines insisted was self-defense, he shot Blackwell in the head with his .357 magnum, killing him.

However, there appears to have been much more to the story than what Raines initially depicted.

Two witnesses at the scene claimed they never saw Blackwell point a gun at Raines. Also, the gun that was claimed to have been found at the scene was reportedly still being held between Blackwell's hands and head, even after the jolt of being shot by Raines' large-caliber gun and subsequently falling to the ground.

Darrel L. Mumford, though not an officer, had been riding in the car with Raines and admittedly tampered with the handgun.

He professed that he moved the gun because he didn't want Blackwell to use it against someone, even though Blackwell had already been killed.

Rev. H. K. Matthews, head of the Northwest Florida chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at the time, wrote about the incident extensively in his memoir, "Victory After the Fall."

He states that the day after the shooting, a woman named Deborah Jones called to speak with him and Rev. B. J. Brooks of the NAACP.

Ms. Jones claimed that she was in the car with Blackwell during the chase and that Raines pulled them over because he saw her get into the car with Blackwell at the Club 400.

Jones told Matthews and Brooks that she and Raines had been lovers in the past, and when the deputy pulled the couple over, Raines was in a jealous rage and pulled her out of the car.

She claimed she got away from Raines, ran from the scene and heard the shots fired by the deputy as she escaped.

Matthews and Brooks never had a chance to further investigate the matter. Excited by what they saw as a key witness in proving foul play in the killing, Matthews and Brooks told several people about Jones' statement, including Sheriff Royal Untreiner.

Just a few days later, on Dec. 26, 1974, Deborah Jones was found strangled to death under an overpass near Washington High School.

A grand jury was convened in Escambia County by Assistant State Attorney Nathaniel Dedmond to discuss if the killing of Wendel Blackwell was in violation of the law.

Although Gov. Rueben Askew had suggested that Dedmond request a coroner's inquest, Dedmond had already subpoenaed witnesses for the grand jury. At this time, a coroner's inquest still included a jury, which made a legally binding decision as to if they should indict a person or not.

The report issued by the grand jury on Jan. 22, 1975 stated that the officer acted in "a reasonably prudent manner; he reasonably believed himself in imminent danger of death or bodily harm created by the said Wendel Sylvester Blackwell who was armed."

While his friends testified to the grand jury that Blackwell had been in possession of a Derringer handgun that was owned by his friend, Leroy Beasley, the issue of whether or not the gun was in Blackwell's hand while being detained by Deputy Raines was questionable.

Despite the fact that it was clear that the evidence had been tampered with at the crime scene, the grand jury found no reason to investigate further.

As Matthews wrote in his book, "We simply did not believe that Blackwell had a gun in his hand or that it was lying under his head when he fell. Someone, either Raines or his civilian rider, put it there."

The African-American community was growing increasingly frustrated with what they believed was a lack of proper investigation of the killing.

THE LONG AFTERMATH

Many people in the community were devastated by the grand jury's findings. Much of the distrust of several grand juries' verdicts was the result of boiling racial tensions from a number of local incidents.

Less than a month before Blackwell's murder, on Nov. 30, 1974, five black men from Atlanta were declared missing in the Santa Rosa Sound. Their boat was found the next day under suspicious circumstances, and one of the wives of the missing men received an anonymous tip that the men had been kidnapped.

The bodies eventually surfaced and the cause of death was immediately reported to be accidental, but the claim was later investigated for foul play only after a public outcry by the African-American community and the involvement of the SCLC.

Around the same time, there was also growing racial tension resulting from the fight to rid Escambia High School of the rebel flag, school song ("Dixie"), and mascot (Rebels), which many felt were in bad taste given the school's recent compulsory integration.

By the time of the grand jury announcement that no legal action would be pursued against Deputy Raines, hundreds from the black community took to the streets in what was one of the largest and most prolonged protests against racial inequality that Pensacola has ever seen.

That Friday, Jan. 24, 1975, an estimated 400 people marched down Palafox Street in downtown Pensacola to the steps of the Escambia County Courthouse. The march even included a hearse in memory of Wendel Blackwell and the event was reportedly demonstrated peacefully.

A casket was carried up the steps of the courthouse as Rev. R. N. Gooden gave a eulogy to the recently departed Blackwell.

Gooden's eulogy was featured in the Pensacola Journal the next day, quoting "The only thing good about the death of Wendel Blackwell is that he is free now, free from all the oppression and injustice going on in this country. And it is said that the only way a black man can be free is to die. But I tell you, the black people standing on these steps are willing to die for justice."

Gooden was also reported to have stated that the infamous group Deacons for Defense would patrol the black neighborhoods of Pensacola to protect residents from harm by law enforcement officers.

The tone had now been set for a long stand-off between African-American residents of Pensacola, who felt as though they had been repeatedly denied of any legitimate protection by local authorities and the local legal system, and those from the Sheriff's Department and other officials who viewed the group as unfounded trouble-makers.

Three weeks of nightly protests followed in front of the Escambia County Sheriff's headquarters, culminating in an incident that occurred on Feb. 24, 1975.

On that night, a group of protesters, still seeking the termination of Deputy Raines and an investigation into the killing of Blackwell, arrived in carloads to their regular protest site in front of the County Jail.

An apparent regular chant by the crowd, "Two, four, six, eight, who shall we incarcerate? Untreiner, Raines, the whole damn bunch!" was allegedly misheard by Sheriff Untreiner as being "assassinate" instead of "incarcerate."

Claiming that the group was violating a peaceful assembly law, Untreiner and Deputy Jim Edson, head of the Sheriff's Riot Squad, ordered the group of several hundred protesters to disperse.

Ninety seconds later, Sheriff Untreiner ordered approximately 70 deputies armed with clubs to disperse the crowd with force.

In the ensuing melee, protesters were beaten and arrested. The total number of arrests was confirmed with 34 adults and 13 juveniles who were ultimately charged with unlawful assembly and malicious trespass.

Three days later, Rev. H. K. Matthews and Rev. B. J. Brooks, supposedly targeted for being leaders of the group, were also charged with felony extortion. The extortion charges were drawn from the same misconception that the leaders had encouraged "assassination" instead of "incarceration."

At the trial for Matthews and Brooks, another protester, Jimmie Lee Savage, testified that he, not Matthews and Brooks, was the one that always led the chants.

The tape which the accused were alleged to be encouraging the group to "assassinate" was grossly inaudible and from a completely different night of protest.

Using only the testimony of deputies, namely Jim Edson, as their evidence, Matthews and Brooks were convicted of the extortion charges by an all-white jury. Brooks was sentenced to five years probation and Matthews to five years of imprisonment.

After serving 63 days, Matthews and Brooks both received clemency; however, the damage was already inflicted. Due to being blacklisted, Matthews had to move to nearby Alabama.

Matthews and Brooks were eventually pardoned due to a series of revelations that began with the discovery that Deputy Edson, the main witness for the prosecution of the two civil rights leaders, had falsified college transcripts from American University in order to be promoted to supervisor of the Riot Squad. This, in turn, led to a discovery that Edson had stolen cars from the ECSO impound lot.

While he was charged with grand larceny and found guilty, Edson was never charged with perjury against Matthews and Brooks. This was despite the fact that Edson was overheard by a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times during the Blackwell protests boasting that the deputies were going to play a new game at the protests called "Selma."

"You grab a club and hit a n----r," Edson was reported to have said.

"Now, I don't want you to think I'm a racist. I like black folks. In fact, I'd like to have two of them -- to put in my backyard for the dogs to play with. N----rs are better than milk bones."

Deputy Raines was not fired over the killing of Wendel Blackwell. In July 1976, while working in the jail, Raines beat an inmate unconscious for not getting off the jail phone in the time that Raines thought the phone should be relinquished.

Raines received no punishment for this incident, either.

However, on March 11, 1982, just a month after being arrested on charges of aggravated battery for breaking a man's arm, Raines was finally fired after he admitted to having sex with and taking pornographic pictures of an underage girl he had met while on patrol.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

While there may be many obvious, stark differences in the social climate of Pensacola in the 1970s to that of the present, there are some notable parallels between how the Blackwell case and the more recent incident involving the death of Victor Steen have been handled by the local legal system.

The presence of a gun with both victims was suggested in some media outlets to discredit the innocence of the victims, despite the doctrine of presumed innocence in the United States.

While in the Blackwell case, the gun was known to have been tampered with at the crime scene, the grand jury didn't find that as cause for further possible investigation into Deputy Raines' actions. Similarly, in the recent incident with Victor Steen, the presence of a gun was used to largely discredit Steen, almost immediately, by leaks to WEAR.

However, witnesses who were located at the restaurant and bar, Sluggo's, across the street from the scene of Victor's death, reportedly had their view of the crime scene repeatedly blocked by Fire Department engines and other vehicles, even though observing a police investigation is perfectly legal.

"They took parked vehicles and moved them from where they were parked to block our line of sight. That happened several times, first with an ambulance, then with fire trucks. We were just observing the scene quite respectfully, but it seemed like they were trying to keep us from watching the crime scene," claimed witness Gina Mangold.

Suspiciously, the gun said to be found in Steen's possession was reported at the coroner's inquest as containing no fingerprints. Other witnesses reported having their cameras confiscated after intimidation by investigating officers.

Also, a massive public outcry was seen in both cases. During the Blackwell protests, an impassioned series of protests were held, only to be derailed by the injustice of the felony charges toward Matthews and Brooks.

Shortly after Victor Steen's death, there were protests, which led to the reformation of two pursuit laws by the Pensacola Police Department.

On a historical note, the Steen protests have become some of the first incidents in Pensacola history where a large group made up of people from several different racial backgrounds have protested for an investigation into a killing by an officer of the law.

The most prominent similarity between these two incidents is the dispute between local authorities and those who would like to see further investigation into the killings.

They point out what some see as the biased nature of the local justice system, which has now become especially under fire with the overuse of coroner's inquests by the state attorney, specifically when the person in question is an officer of the law.

The frequent use of coroner's inquests in Escambia County, such as in the Steen incident, is seen by some, such as Benjamin Stevenson of the local American Civil Liberties Union, as a political diversion tactic.

The law for coroner's inquests has changed in the years between the Blackwell and Steen killings.

A 1977 decision turned the inquests from an investigation with a jury, able to make a legally binding decision to indict someone, to what is now a jury-less affair in which the judge makes a decision that is not legally binding in any way. The prosecutor is still the person who has the authority to indict, which he does not abdicate to the judge.

"In an effort to deflect criticism after a decision not to prosecute, (the state attorney) decides to hold a coroner's inquest," Stevenson said.

Stevenson claims that once the state attorney's office has announced a coroner's inquest, they have essentially already made a decision not to prosecute. "They have already been presented with the findings by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and if they were serious about prosecuting, they wouldn't want to put their legal strategy on display for the defense," Stevenson added.

When asked about why officers of the law are sometimes given more credibility in court, even though they are just as prone to lying as anyone else -- exemplified by H. K. Matthews' prosecution -- Stevenson had this to say: "Many people are under the false assumption that law enforcement never lie."

However, Stevenson did give suggestions for ways we can improve investigations of situations of this nature in the future.

He said that investigations by the FDLE are a step in the right direction, as state investigations into police brutality charges are less prone to favoritism than local ones. Similarly, with the potential conflict of interest that could arise when a local state attorney is required to investigate another facet of the government, Stevenson added that "There's another provision of law that provides for the appointment of a special prosecutor in cases where the state attorney's office is in an actual or perceived conflict of interest.

"In that case, the governor would appoint a prosecutor from outside the circuit to the case."

Since 1998, Escambia County has held 12 coroner's inquests in situations where a police officer or deputy has killed someone while on duty -- a disproportionately high number compared to other counties in Florida.

In two of those coroner's inquests, the judge found that officers contributed to the death of the victim, and the state attorney never chose to prosecute.

info@inweekly.net


Editor's note: After this story was published, Mr. Raines contacted the IN and asserted that there was no female in the car with Wendel Blackwell, as reported by Rev. Matthews.