A tale of South­ern in­jus­tice, with an un­usual twist

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY GARY KRIST Gary Krist’s new book is “The Mi­rage Fac­tory: Il­lu­sion, Imag­i­na­tion, and the In­ven­tion of Los An­ge­les.”

On a dark De­cem­ber night in 1957, when Blanche Knowles — a mar­ried white woman from a prom­i­nent cit­rus-grow­ing fam­ily in Okahumpka, Fla. — re­ported that she had been “raped by a Ne­gro . . . with bushy hair,” the re­sponse from lo­cal author­i­ties was de­press­ingly pre­dictable. Lake County Sher­iff Wil­lis McCall, a swag­ger­ing, old-boy law­man whose bla­tant racism and ut­ter un­scrupu­lous­ness were leg­endary in the area, sent out a ra­dio call to his deputies. He or­dered them to round up ev­ery one of the town’s black males (not the term he used) and haul them off to jail. The code of jus­tice in ru­ral, Jim Crow Florida, af­ter all, de­manded that some­body in the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity pay for the crime, whether or not that some­body was guilty.

But strangely, in this one case, things didn’t turn out that way. A few days be­fore Christ­mas, two sher­iff’s deputies ap­peared on the doorstep of the poor, white Daniels fam­ily, whose run­down home stood not far from the Knowles es­tate. The deputies wanted to take 19-year-old Jesse Daniels down to the jail to ask him a few ques­tions about the rape. A sweet-na­tured, in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled “man-child” with an IQ well be­low av­er­age, Jesse was more than will­ing to help. “Sure, I’ll go,” he told the deputies. “I’m not afraid. I want you to get the right man. Af­ter all, my mother’s a woman.”

Jesse’s trust proved to be mis­placed. McCall didn’t al­low him to come home from jail that night or for many nights to come. Over the next week, as all but one of the black sus­pects were re­leased, Jesse was held in iso­la­tion, with­out ac­cess to a lawyer or even his par­ents. Fi­nally, the last African Amer­i­can de­tainee, Sam Wi­ley Odom, was cleared. At a news con­fer­ence on Dec. 28, McCall and State At­tor­ney Gordon Old­ham made an an­nounce­ment: Knowles had been mis­taken about the race of her at­tacker. The real per­pe­tra­tor was Daniels. And the young man, they claimed, had con­fessed — to a crime that any­one fa­mil­iar with Jesse (who slept with a teddy bear ev­ery night) knew he never could have com­mit­ted.

In “Be­neath a Ruth­less Sun,” jour­nal­ist Gil­bert King re­counts this per­plex­ing story with com­pas­sion and a vi­brant sense of time and place. Florida’s Lake County is fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory for King, whose last book, the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning “Devil in the Grove,” was also set there. The Daniels case played out a few years later, but while the Space Age was al­ready well un­der­way in 1957 at nearby Cape Canaveral, Lake County seemed to linger in an ear­lier era of wa­ter­melon fes­ti­vals, swim­ming holes and gos­sip­ing reg­u­lars at the lo­cal dry-goods store. And although the cit­rus in­dus­try had brought some eco­nomic ad­vance­ment to the area, “so­cial progress,” as King writes with con­sum­mate un­der­state­ment, “came more slowly.”

Lake County had in fact been the site of some of the ugli­est and most high-profile racial episodes in civil rights his­tory, in­clud­ing one — the 1949 Grov­e­land case (sub­ject of “Devil in the Grove”) — that in­spired U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Robert Jack­son to de­clare the con­di­tions there “one of the best ex­am­ples of one of the worst men­aces to Amer­i­can jus­tice.”

At the cen­ter of almost all of these in­ci­dents was McCall, who ruled the county like some kind of provin­cial despot and seemed to think (cor­rectly) that he could get away with just about any mis­car­riage of jus­tice imag­in­able. The Knowles rape case was no ex­cep­tion. For rea­sons that may seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive at first (but that turn out to be just as de­praved and big­oted as any that mo­ti­vated him in other cases), McCall was de­ter­mined to pin the of­fense on Daniels — de­spite over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence that Odom was guilty — and there was no act of sub­terfuge or ev­i­dence-tam­per­ing he con­sid­ered too low to get the re­sults he wanted.

What fol­lowed was a truly out­ra­geous ex­am­ple of small-town South­ern prejudice and malfea­sance. Ea­ger to avoid a crim­i­nal trial that might have made the ab­sur­dity of the charge against Daniels ob­vi­ous, McCall and prose­cu­tor Old­ham — with the judge and Jesse’s court-ap­pointed lawyer firmly in their pocket — had lit­tle trou­ble get­ting the young man com­mit­ted to the State Hospi­tal for the In­sane at Chat­ta­hoochee. And there, de­spite the heroic ef­forts of his mother and a pi­o­neer­ing news­pa­per jour­nal­ist named Ma­bel Nor­ris Reese, Jesse was to re­main for well over a decade, a gen­tle and harm­less in­no­cent among the crim­i­nally in­sane.

Ul­ti­mately it took a num­ber of fac­tors — in­clud­ing the elec­tion of a pro­gres­sive gov­er­nor and the cre­ation of county-based free le­gal aid or­ga­ni­za­tions — to get any­thing re­sem­bling jus­tice in the Daniels case. But af­ter almost 14 night­mar­ish years at Chat­ta­hoochee, Jesse was re­leased in De­cem­ber 1971, hav­ing been de­clared both sane and in­no­cent of the rape. And while an ini­tial award of $200,000 in dam­ages was even­tu­ally re­duced to just $75,000, this deeply com­pro­mised out­come was still far more ret­ri­bu­tion than most black vic­tims of McCall’s wrong­do­ing ever re­ceived.

Per­haps the most in­fu­ri­at­ing as­pect of this sober­ing but ex­pertly told saga is that McCall and Old­ham con­tin­ued to get away with this kind of bla­tant high-hand­ed­ness for years, with­out pun­ish­ment. McCall was fi­nally voted out of of­fice in 1980, but although he was im­pli­cated in nu­mer­ous of­fenses over the years (“He was in­ves­ti­gated more times than the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion,” his son once said), he died in 1994 with­out be­ing con­victed of any­thing. Mean­while, Old­ham — whom many be­lieve to be the big­ger vil­lain, at least in the Daniels case — re­tired with honor in 1984. Two years af­ter his death in 1998, the Lake County Bar put up a gran­ite mon­u­ment near the court­house in his honor.




ABOVE: Jesse Daniels. LEFT: State At­tor­ney Gordon Old­ham, who pros­e­cuted Daniels. RIGHT: Daniels with his mother, Pearl, who worked to get him re­leased from the Florida State Hospi­tal for the In­sane.

By Gil­bert King River­head. 417 pp. $28

BE­NEATH A RUTH­LESS SUN A True Story of Vi­o­lence, Race, and Jus­tice Lost and Found

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