1959 racial slaying of Mississippi teen could get fresh look

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

CORINTH, Miss. -- Eberlene King remembers her 15-year-old brother as he lay dying, after white teenagers cruised through their black neighborhood in a pickup on Halloween night 1959 and shot him in the face.

"His eyes ... were hanging out," King recalled. "His head was full of pellets."

William Roy Prather died the next morning in their hometown of Corinth, a few miles south of the Tennessee line.

Eight white teens were charged with murder, but only one was convicted. Jerry Darnell Glidewell, then 16, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in January 1960 and served less than a year in state prison. Six of the seven others in the truck got a year's probation through youth court, and an 18-year-old walked free.

The black teen's slaying has never drawn much attention, even as federal and state authorities in the past 15 years have re-opened investigations of racially motivated killings from the civil rights era.

Now, the U.S. Justice Department has referred Prather's killing to the Sate of Mississippi "for potential prosecution." The Associated Press dug into the case to reveal information not previously reported, including details about the Justice Department's investigation and AP interviews with King and Glidewell.

It's unclear whether a district attorney will pursue charges against any aging defendant in a decades-old case where witnesses' memories may be fading and some pieces of evidence, including the truck and the shotgun, have disappeared.

The case is briefly mentioned in a report the department filed in March -- the same one saying the department is reviving its investigation into the brutal 1955 killing of another black teenager in Mississippi, Emmett Till.

"Although prosecution of some of the subjects may be barred by double jeopardy and other subjects are deceased, the Department referred the matter to the state of Mississippi to determine whether any state prosecutions might be appropriate," the Justice Department said of the Prather case.

The state prosecutor whose territory includes Corinth, District Attorney John Weddle, did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

King said FBI agents knocked on her door a few years ago and hand-delivered a letter from the Justice Department. The letter said no federal charges could be brought in the killing of her brother, based on laws existing in 1959. It said "the only possible prosecution" would be for the state to bring unspecified charges against one suspect who was 18 at the time of the crime.

Corinth is home to about 14,600 people, 70 percent of them white and 24 percent black.

In the city, once besieged during the Civil War, schools and neighborhoods remained segregated through the 1960s. While some black residents remember fear and violence, others say the town was quiet as long as everyone, in the language of the times, "remembered their place."

The 1950s and 1960s saw racial strife throughout the South, as whites resisted racial integration. Prather's slaying came four years after Till's brutal killing galvanized the civil rights movement and three years before violence erupted about 80 miles southwest of Corinth at the University of Mississippi when the first black student enrolled.

A Confederate soldier still statue stands sentinel outside the courthouse on Corinth's town square.

Inside the courthouse, old handwritten records show on Jan. 26, 1960, Glidewell pleaded guilty to manslaughter: "Ordered to serve 5 yrs. in State Penitentiary, the last 4 yrs. of which suspended on good behavior."

Glidewell, who goes by his middle name Darnell, now lives off a hilly country road north of Corinth. He answered the phone on a recent morning, and an Associated Press reporter asked about Prather's killing.

"They charged me with that, yeah," said Glidewell, now in his mid-70s.

As to what happened that Halloween night, he said: "I'd rather not talk to you on the phone."

But Glidewell responded to a few more questions. He said investigators spoke to him about the case several ago, and one said: "'Don't worry about it."'

"It's all over with, you know?" Glidewell said. "But I ain't heard any more from it. ... That's over 50 year ago."

Glidewell said "four or five" of the people with him that night are still alive. "I don't know where they live right now," he said. "I don't ever see them."

Their names don't appear in court records near Glidewell's, but they are listed in the Justice Department letter.

After the phone conversation, an AP reporter and photographer drove to Glidewell's house and knocked on the door. His wife said he has liver cancer, his memory is failing and he did not want to talk.

The Justice Department letter states, based on investigators' interviews with witnesses, a group of white teens drove through a black neighborhood of Corinth on Halloween night 1959. Black witnesses said they saw the white teens throwing firecrackers at the black teens, and some young black people threw rocks and bricks at the truck. Investigators were told the white teenagers got a shotgun and shells from a home of one person in their group, then returned to the black part of town, where Glidewell shot Prather.

"Glidewell reported to police that before he fired the shotgun several of the subjects said, 'There they are, shoot,"' the Justice Department letter said.

News reports from the time said Prather was not among those who had thrown rocks or bricks at the truck.

"Although Glidewell and some of the subjects contended that Glidewell had shot straight up in the air, the autopsy report indicated that Glidewell had aimed the shotgun dead-straight at your brother's face," the Justice Department letter said.

King, now 73, said her older brother was "a real quiet person" who had helped his friends clean up a church on Halloween night.

"He didn't deserve what happened to him. ... Well, nobody deserves that," King said in a phone interview from her home near Atlanta. "He would just go to school, go back and do his chores at home."

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