Killing of Indian Brings N.C. Racial Problems to Fore
Among the Lumbee Indians here, Julian Pierce was described as “the best hope we had.”
Pierce’s candidacy for a Superior Court judgeship marked what many believed would be a turning point for the Indians and blacks who form a two-thirds majority in Robeson County, N. C.
They saw Pierce, himself a Lumbee, as their chance for a greater voice in a justice system that the two ethnic groups have long accused of brutality and corruption--until late last month, when, in his own kitchen, the popular 42-year-old legal aid lawyer was killed by three shotgun blasts.
Death Threats Reported
Local activists and the media immediately branded the killing a political assassination. County leaders appealed for calm as several local politicians reported receiving death threats. The U.S. Justice Department, fearing violence, sent in a community relations team.
Law enforcement authorities announced several days later that they had solved the crime. Pierce, they said, was murdered because of his peripheral role in a complex and bizarre domestic dispute.
But not all have accepted that explanation. “There’s a tremendous amount of suspicion regarding any official investigation here because of the history of our community,” the Rev. Mac Legerton, a white activist, said. “It may be a year before we know fact from fiction in Robeson County.” Privately, many blacks and Lumbees say they agree.
However, Sheriff Hubert Stone said the county is “90% satisfied” with his investigation. The exceptions, he said, are primarily “certain agitators who wanted (the murder) to be something else.”
Justified or not, the distrust underscores problems that have long festered in this volatile and troubled corner of North Carolina.
Grief Tinged With Irony
For Pierce’s supporters, grief is tinged with a sense of bitter irony. With his death, the only remaining candidate for the judicial seat is a man who symbolizes what many Indians believe is wrong with Robeson County justice. Joe Freeman Britt, district attorney in a county where Indians and blacks are statistically more likely to spend time in jail than whites, has sent so many people to Death Row that the Guinness Book of World Records listed him as “deadliest prosecutor.”
Moreover, Britt--a white--will win a new judicial seat that was tailor-made last year by state legislators to create an opportunity for a minority-member candidate. Outrage among Lumbees and blacks is so fierce that top state officials have agreed to create yet another seat on the bench and appoint an Indian to it.
Although they share many traditions with whites, Lumbees have experienced much of the same discrimination as blacks. Many in Robeson County recall when its towns maintained three sets of water fountains, marked White, Colored and Indian. Customers entered movie theaters through three entrances, according to race, and sat in three separate sections.
But, as times changed, so did the Lumbee willingness to accept that treatment. When Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard James W. (Catfish) Cole staged a rally in 1958 to “put the Indians in their place,” he and his group were run out of town by hundreds of Lumbees.
Part of ‘Cocaine Alley’
Racial tensions have lingered in the county, along with its more visible problems of poverty and crime. Robeson County, a low-income pocket of roughly 100,000 people on the Interstate 95 “cocaine alley” leading from Florida, has become a major drug trafficking center where the murder rate is double the state average.
Fear and frustration have led to desperation. In February, two Indians staged a 10-hour takeover of the local newspaper offices, holding 17 people hostage at gunpoint to protest what they described as corruption in county government. The two young men, who later surrendered, have become heroes to many Lumbees.
Handwritten posters in Pembroke, a Lumbee enclave 10 miles from Lumberton, announce a $3.50-a-plate chicken and barbecue dinner for the Eddie Hatcher and Timmy Jacobs Defense Fund. “Don’t let them stand alone,” the signs say.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson even telephoned Hatcher when his presidential campaign visited here in late February. “What is happening right here,” Jackson declared, ". . . is a whole body of people has been abandoned by the law.”
Unarmed Indian Killed
Said Qussie Strickland, a Lumbee whose unarmed brother was shot to death two years ago by a sheriff’s deputy: “The people are beginning to open their eyes and see what is going on.”
Her brother, Jimmy Earl Cummings, was shot by Deputy Kevin Stone, the sheriff’s son and a boyhood friend of Cummings. Stone claimed it was self-defense--that Cummings had swung a plastic bucket at him while resisting arrest.
Stone was exonerated after a hastily called coroner’s inquest, but many in the Lumbee community remain suspicious. Cummings’ family said he was killed because he knew too much about 500 grams of cocaine that had vanished from a sheriff’s department locker three months earlier.
“My brother died because he was involved in drugs that came out of the courthouse,” Strickland contended. “He told us that he bought drugs out of the courthouse.”
But Sheriff Stone insists that such accusations are unfounded and notes that law enforcement agencies outside the county have found no evidence to support them. “If anybody in this department would be (dealing) drugs, they would be caught,” he said. “I welcome investigations any time in my department.”
Black Dies in County Jail
Activists point also to incidents such as the death in January of Billy McKellar in Robeson County Jail. McKellar’s parents allege that their son, a black, was denied asthma medication that would have saved his life; Stone says he died of cardiac arrest after receiving the medicine.
“It’s a bad life that you have to live . . . when you are fighting for a cause and the law is not with you,” McKellar’s mother, Betty, said at an Easter Sunday memorial service for her son.
“They’re picking on anything they can,” Stone has said of McKellar’s death. “We regret when anyone dies, and he’s not the first person to die in that jail, and he won’t be the last.”
Last year, a committee appointed by the state’s Commission on Indian Affairs supported the longstanding allegations that not everyone gets a fair shake from Robeson County’s criminal justice system. It found that Indians and blacks statewide were roughly twice as likely to be arrested as whites, and that Indians arrested in Robeson County were three times as likely as whites to receive prison sentences.
The report, along with another prepared earlier by the New England-based Rural Advancement Fund Justice Project, portrayed many defendants as unaware of their rights and, therefore, unable to demand them in court.
‘No Justice Here’
“I can’t underscore the awesome nature of a district attorney’s office, with all the trappings of power that go with it,” the state committee’s chairman, Henry McKoy, deputy secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Administration, said at the time. “They’re going up against the Indian citizens almost with an army. There is no justice there.”
The Rural Advancement Fund, a private advocacy group, reported in 1983 that defendants often are insulted in court. They have been asked such questions as “What’s that mess on your shirt?” and “Why did you do it, to let the state support you for a while?”
One judge, the group wrote, “routinely tells defendants whom he is fining (that) ‘you people’ don’t make fine payments.”
“One judge continued a $10,000 bond on a local man after a hearing in which the only testimony offered was the prosecutor’s comment that the defendant’s family has ‘bad blood,’ ” the private group wrote. Fund director Maurice D. Geiger--who lives in New Hampshire and is often cited as an “outside agitator” by local officials--said the situation has not improved since his group’s report five years ago.
Tough on Lawbreakers
Britt did not return repeated phone calls from The Times. Stone dismissed the reports as politically motivated and said: “We arrest the people who commit the crimes.” Although Britt is tough on lawbreakers in this crime-plagued county, Stone said: “He has handled his job very professionally. I’ve never seen him where he cared what color they were.”
But, when the victims are blacks or Indians, critics charge, crimes are not so vigorously prosecuted. They point to the unsolved 1985 murder of Joyce Sinclair, a black who was sexually assaulted and stabbed repeatedly. Her body was found on land where the Ku Klux Klan had held a rally the year before, and her 4-year-old daughter said she had left the house with a man wearing white.
The sheriff concedes that “we’ve had our share of unsolved crime"--including 13 murders--but blames the problem on insufficient manpower and funds.
Stone and many others contend that the county’s problems have been blown out of proportion by outside groups and the media. “I feel a whole lot safer walking down the streets in any town in Robeson County than in Washington, D.C., or New York or California,” County Commissioner H. T. Taylor said.
‘Friendly Visit’ Sought
Taylor admonished a reporter: “Make it a friendly visit. Look at some positive things.”
A white woman working in a convenience store contended that the county’s troublemakers are “people that don’t work,” and she insisted that all races have access to the political system.
After asking not to be identified, she said: “They run for office and everything. That man getting killed had nothing to do with him running for office.”
Lumbees and blacks hold relatively few elected positions in Robeson County, but they are learning that their numbers--35% of the county population is Indian; 25% is black--can bring results at the polls. A month after the showdown at the newspaper, record turnouts of blacks and Lumbees passed by a narrow vote a measure to merge the county’s five school districts, which have been divided along racial and economic lines.
The next test of their combined clout was to have been a May 3 primary contest between Britt and Pierce for the new judicial post that state legislators had created to encourage the election of a minority candidate. The winner of the primary was a sure victor, because no Republican was in the race.
‘The Best Hope We Had’
Pierce, by all accounts well-liked and respected, was rallying Lumbee and black constituencies that had often been at odds in the past, his supporters said. “He was the best hope we had,” said Christine Griffin, who had worked with Pierce at Lumbee River Legal Services.
“Julian Pierce was going to win this election,” Legerton, the white activist, said. “If Julian had won that election, that would have been the end of business as usual in Robeson County.”
Early in the morning of March 28, shots fired through Pierce’s kitchen door struck him in the chest and side. The assailant or assailants then broke through the door and blasted his head with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Several days later, law enforcement officials said it appeared that the assailant had been 24-year-old John Anderson Goins, a fellow Lumbee suffering the throes of a broken romance. Goins had been dating the daughter of Pierce’s girlfriend.
The younger couple “started having problems and they broke up,” Sheriff Stone said three days after Pierce’s murder. “Two warrants were issued last week by the girlfriend’s mother, charging Goins with trespassing. Goins felt Pierce had something to do with it. He got mad and he killed him.”
Suspect Kills Self
Goins subsequently committed suicide. Another Lumbee who allegedly was at the murder scene was arrested and charged in connection with the crime.
Eric Prevatte, a white auto parts dealer who had led the school merger campaign and was one of Pierce’s leading supporters, insists that, even though Pierce is dead, the changes he sought will ultimately occur.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “It’s not a matter of if these people are going to take their rightful place in this county, it’s when.”