Prosecutors in the "Dawson Five" murder trial were handed a major setback today when a circuit court judge threw out the confessions of two key defendants.
The surprise action by Judge Leonard Albert Farkas came on the day the first of the defendants, Roosevelt Watson, 21, was supposed to begin trial on murder and robbery charges.
Farkas also released on their own recognizance two other Dawson Five defendants who had been in jail for 19 months. Three of the defendants, including Watson, had been released earlier after posting $100 bond.
Michael Stoddard, the leading prosecutor, immediately announced that he would appeal Farkas' ruling on the confessions, on grounds that the judge "acted erroneously."
The appeal is expected to delay the start of the trial 30 to 90 days.
Stoddard said the confessions suppreseed by Farkas "are key evidence, evidence that is extremely important to the case."
Defense attorneys contended today that without the confessions the state has no case at all.
The Dawson Five are black men, ranging in age from 18 to 24. All are functional illiterates. They are accused of participating in the shooting death of Gordon (Bubba) Howell, a white ranch foreman, allegedly during the robbery of a country store on Jan. 22, 1976.
Roosevelt Watson, whose 24-year-old brother, Henderson, is also charged, is accused of firing the gun that killed Howell.
The matter has attracted national attention because of widespread allegations - made by defense lawyers and black leaders such as state Rep. Julian Bond - that Watson and his co-defendants are victims of a racially biased social and judicial system.
Defense lawyers have contended, for example that the confession - actually transcribed oral statements "signed" with an "X" - made by Roosevelt Watson and co-defendant J. D. Davenport were given uner duress. Both the confessions were given only after police threatened to either shoot or eltrocute the two, the defense contends.
However, Farkas' ruling today was not made on the merits of those arguments.
In fact, the judge did not make entirely clear why he was suppressing the confessions. But he seemed to feel that that issue had been argued completely once before and that the defense once before and that the defense should not have to go through it again.
Defense lawyer Millard C. Farmer began today by arguing that the charges should be thrown out because the original judge, Walter Idus Geer, disqualified himself lastweek without ruling on the defense motion to void the confessions, farmer argued that Geer's disqualification was another in a long line of state actions characterized by "defeat, delay procrastination and wrongful bias," in an attempt to deny the defendants their due process rights.
Geer, 64 and suffering from emphysema, a lung alliction, said he disqualified himself for health reasons. Farkas was appointed Tuesday. Both the defense and the prosecution claimed they knew nothing about the switch until last Friday, when they learned of it from news reports.
Farmer charged in court today that Geer was "no iller or weller now" than he was when he presided over six days of pretrial hearings this month, during which the defense made numerous motions to suppress evidence and dismiss the indictment.
Geer refuse to dismiss the indictment, but sustained a defense request to suppress certain physical evidence obtained by law enforcement officials after the killing. Left haning was the motion to suppress the confessions.
In his motion filed today, Farmer said: "The state failed to carry the burden showing that the statements [confessions] were voluntary and therefore could be admitted to evidence. Walter I. Geer copped out and failed to issue a ruling."
Farmer also argued that Farkas had been brought into the case/under the impression that all pretrial matters had been settled. The prosecutors are "trying to dupe you, your honor," Farmer told the judge in a gravelly voice.