He was white. She was black.
She called him "Woodson." He called her "Marie."
For 10 years, Woodson W. Smith and Marie Staten Dailey got along like that, the way whites and blacks do here in the heart of conservative Southside Virginia. He was the local store owner. She was one of his charge account customers.
But cordiality ended abruptly in February, when Smith found Dailey's son, Charles, in his daughter's bedroom. Smith fetched his gun and shot 18-year-old Charles Sten to death.
Last week a Charlotte County jury -- eight whites and four blacks -- acquitted Smith, 53, of a first-degree murder charge. Smith had claimed self-defense in fatally shooting the unarmed Staten in the back after discovering him standing behind his daughter's bedroom door and Staten refused to "get down on the floor."
The jury reached its verdict despite testimony that the daughter attempted vainly to prevent the killing by yelling, "Don't shoot him, Daddy! If you have to shoot somebody, shoot me!"
As the deep chill of winter settles on Charlotte County, emotions stirred by the verdict continue to boil privately among the county's 12,000 residents. For many of the county's 5,000 blacks, the jury's decision confirms what they see but seldom speak of in mixed company -- a separate and unequal system of justice in Virginia's deep south. For some of Smith's neighbors, who could wish nothing better for Christmas than that the whole thing evaporate, justice has prevailed again.
"We've not had any big trouble in our county because the whites and blacks in our county are good people," said Blair Goff, owner of Parson's Drug Store across from the historic county courthouse where Smith was tried. "It's just when somebody from the outside comes in and stirs things up that trouble starts."
Race was not an issue at the two-day trail. Smith testified he had no knowledge of his 16-year-old daughter, Pamela, seeing Staten for five months before the shooting, nor of the young couple's open displays of affection, that prompted consternation and gossip among white and black classmates at Randolph-Henry High School. She returned to classes there shortly after the trail.
But among many in Charlotte County, where news of racial mixing spreads faster than an August brush fire, it was and is the only issue to speak of.
"What do you think?" said Gladys Collie, a silver-haired waitress at one of the county's two motel-restaurants and a former high school classmate of Smith. "Any man would have been justified doing what he did. If it had been my daughter, my heart would have jumped right out of my body and onto the highway."
"Blacks aren't talking about it and whites are saying, 'I'm glad Woodson got off, I'm glad he made it,'" said one local white businessman, who asked not to be named. "And they don't know the facts. They're just glad he shot a black. I don't think they could have ever found 12 people in this county to convict him."
"I'm probably a little more tolerant," said county sheriff's deputy W. L. Inge, "but I guess damned near 90 percent of the county would have done the same thing."
Smith testified that he had suspected someone of stealing money from his bedroom for several months. In a post-trail interview, the short, gray-haired shopkeeper said he collected bicentennial quarters and half-dollars from his country grocery store and that handfuls of the coins had disappeared from a dish on the headboard of his bed.
"I had my eye on a couple of white boys," he said.
Smith's younger son, Ronnie, testified that he had noticed a door open when he went into the family's house to fuel a basement wood fire on the night of the shooting. He told his older brother, Woodie, who told his father "an intruder might be in the house."
Smith said he searched the basement, then went to his bedroom to get his .25-caliber pistol. In the hallway he met his daughter, who had invited Staten into the house. She asked, "What are you doing?" but got no answer because, Smith said, he feared frightening her.
Smith noticed his daughter's bedroom door closed and the light out. He switched on the light and looked under the bed, he said, then turned and saw Staten standing behind the door.
"I knew him well," Smith said. "But when I go into my daughter's bedroom and find a man behind the door, I think I have the right one [thief]. I still think I had the right one."
Smith said he ordered Staten to the floor, but Staten moved forward. "I told him he was the one who was stealin' my stuff, and he breaks at you. It's either you or him."
Smith fired once and missed. A second shot entered Staten's forearm and exited from his hand. Smith said he does not recall the fatal shot. "The only thing I can figure is when I fell to the bed, he must have turned as I fired. It was never proved, but that's what the jury believed."
Smith chased him out of the house and into the front yard, where Staten's body was found. "If it had been a white boy behind the door, it would have been the same result," said Smith."I was raised from a kid to be good to colored people. And I would say 90 percent of 'em in this neighborhood think a lot of me."
Even so, Staten's family has filed a $500,000 civil suit against Smith, alleging the store owner violated Staten's civil rights when he killed him.
In this county where the last NAACP meeting drew four persons, black reaction to the verdict has been characteristically sub-surface and public protest is viewed as unlikely. But the case has captured the attention of the state NAACP which plans to press the Virginia attorney general's office, and the U.S. Justice Department, for an investigation.
"If he was protecting himself," said the organization's director, Jack Gravely, "why did he shoot him in the back?"
For Gravely, the verdict is the third Charlotte County case in two years to cause concern in Richmond. The first involved a white gas station attendant given a suspended sentence after fatally shooting an unarmed black man from Wilmington, Del., in an argument over a malfunctioning fuel pump. More recently, a young black man was sentenced to life in prison for raping an elderly white woman.
"The people are saying it was a miscarriage of justice and they're concerned about what's going to be done about it," said Robert W. Puryear, a retired school teacher and president of the black Charlotte County Voters League. "It's simply a perpetuation of the injustices that have been going on here."
"You might as well face up to it," said one black juror, who described the jury as being initially split eight to four, the four black members favoring conviction. "In some places, blacks are never really going to get justice. They [white jurors] didn't say it, but I feel they weren't going to convict a white man for killing a black boy."
Many white residents of Charlotte County -- where desegregation in public schools is still a subject of bitterness -- agree.
"You'd be surprised how many poor people like me scrape enough together to send their kids to private academies. I'd like to know who thought up that [desegregation] crap," said one native. "Don't get me wrong. I dearly love colored people. Just as long as they stay in their place."