The white community here is expected to be the star witness next week when prosecutors in the "Dawson Five" murder case try to defuse this week's charges of wholesale racism in Southern Georgia's Terrell County.
In particular, white law enforcement officers, including Dawson Police Cheif Phil Law, will take the stand to deny accusations that they regularly brutalize black citizens.
Meanwhile, two parents of the defendants traveled the 21 miles to plains today in an unsuccesful attempt to see President Carter about the case. White House deputy press secretary Rex Granum told Fannie Lou Watson and James Jackson that a White House aide will see them Monday.
The Dawson Five case, involving five young black defendants charged with murder and armed robbery in the January, 1976, pistol slaying of a white ranch foreman during a rural grocery store holdup, has drawn national attention.
In three days of hearings this week in the 85-year-old Terrel County courthouse - an architectural grab-bag featuring corinthian columns and minarets - the team Defense Project has staged an unusual legal battle.
To simple question of guilt or innocence has moved to the back burner while specializing in fighting the death penalty - tries to show state Circuit Court Judge Walter I. Geer that all charges should be dropped before the trial begins.
The tack developed after the prosecution made a surprise announcement earlier in the week that the death penalty would not be sought.
As a result, the traditional roles of defense and prosecution have been switched: the defense is mounting the case, charging that racism in the community is the principal reason the five defendants were charged at all.
The most sensational testimony came on Tuesday, when a former Dawson policeman said a gun was put to the head of one of the defendants by an investigation officer who told him he would be shot and thrown out of the car if he did not confess to the crime. The former policeman said local lawmen regularly pistol-whippes and terrorized black citizens. He drew gasps by charging that two of his former colleagues poisoned dogs belonging to black families.
There has been testimony on the alleged racial bias of the Dawson News, the weekly newspaper serving Terrell County.
"All this is most interesting" one of the prosecutors said at one point, "but I don't see what it had to do with whether these five defendants committed a murder of not."
Nevertheless, Greer - a crusty judge with a no-nonsense reputation - has permitted the defense to question witnesses on a wide variety of topics not directly related to the case.
In the past, the team Defense Project - and the Southern Poverty Law Center from which it sprang - has involved itself in cases where the central to the defense.
In the celebrated Joan Little case in North Carolina, for example, the defense did not dispute accusations that the black woman immate killed her white jailer, attempting instead to show that she went simply protecting herself from rape.
In the Dawson case, the issue appears simple. The state says the five defendants - Roosevelt and Henderson Watson, James E. (Junior) and Johnny B. Jackson and J.D. Davenport - donned ski masks, robbed Lynwood Denton's country store near here and shot and killed 52-year-old customer Gordon (Bubba) Howell.
The defense argues that Denton made a delayed and questionable identification of Roosevelt Watson as the trigger man, and that confessions from some of the defendants were coerced by police. But that issue - whether they did it or not - had not yet been joined. For now, chief defense lawyer Millard Farmer is trying to show that the defendants were arrested in the first place because they are black and that their fear of white authority figure is so strong that their confessions came solely from the fear.
"A kid who is black and lives in Terrell County understands and knows he's going to be mistreated if he's arrested," Farmer said.
The prosecution, for now, is staying low key. "We'll have our chance later," said District Attorney John Irwin.
One of the three defendants who has remained in jail for 18 months awaiting trial - Henderson Watson - was released on bail Friday. Two others - Johnny B. Jackson and Davenport - are expected to leave jail Monday. The remaining two already have been released. The prosecution said earlier this week it would not oppose bond reductions to permit the release of all five.