Tuesday, April 22, 1997

One juror saved life of gun genius Williams

Third of a four-part series
By Pat Reese
Staff writer

Marsh Williams, the moonshiner whose genius with guns was to win him a governor’s pardon and a small fortune, was barely old enough to vote when he went on trial for his life in Superior Court on Oct. 12, 1921.

He was charged with first-degree murder in the ambush slaying of Alfred J. Pate, a respected lawman who was killed when he and fellow deputies raided an illegal distillery near Godwin almost three months before.

Williams’ lawyers entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

The Fayetteville Observer reported public interest in the trial was at “high pitch” and every seat in the Superior Courtroom was filled. The stage was set for “a great fight ... supported by the strongest array of counsel any case has had in this county in recent years.”

One member of the prosecution team was also a man destined for public acclaim -- J. Bayard Clark, who was to become a U.S. congressman. The prosecution was led by Solicitor S.B. McLean of Maxton, and his team included Clark, former Solicitor Neil A. Sinclair and lawyers Robert H. Dye, W. Carl Downing, Henry Lilly Cook, John H. Cook and H.L. Brothers, all of Fayetteville.

The defense team was led by Col. John G. Shaw of Fayetteville and included lawyers J.C. Cliford and N.A. Townsend of Dunn and lawyers V.C. Bullard, D.M. Stringfield and Duncan Shaw of Fayetteville.

The judge was John H. Kerr, the first law graduate of Wake Forest College. Kerr, who was from Warrenton, was one of the most feared judges in eastern North Carolina. Lawyers usually had to accept the cards they were dealt in 1921. Few continuances were granted and lawyers seldom could maneuver their cases away from the rigid, fire-and-brimstone Kerr.

Most of the lawyers in the case had heard Kerr’s two-hour charge to the grand jury two months before. His reputation as a tough, no-nonsense judge had preceded him, and a number of the town’s ministers joined lawyers and grand jurors to listen.

“I cannot say what other judges will do, but for me, let them come before me on a second offense of toting pistols and other crimes and they may just as well kiss their wives and families goodbye, because I am going to send them away for a long, long time,” Kerr said.

The state’s first witness in Williams’ trial was Sheriff N.H. McGeachy, followed by three deputies who were with him when he led the July raid on Williams’ still, about a half mile from Godwin.

They testified the still was hidden near the edge of a cotton field, not far from the Godwin-Falcon Road. They said they saw several men running from the still site when they pushed their way through underbrush.

Later testimony showed Williams and five of his still hands -- Randall “Ham” Dawson, Uncle Bob Godwin and his two sons, Neil and Aubry, and Frank Smith -- ran away when the officers closed in on them.

Godwin and his sons had testified at a preliminary hearing on Aug. 2 that Williams hired them to work at the still. They said he gave them guns and told them, “If the officers come, kill them with these.”

McGeachy testified he and his deputies dismantled the still and loaded it into their car. He was leading the way out of the swamp, moving ahead of the car on foot to avoid stumps. He said he dropped to the ground when someone began firing from ambush as the officers moved slowly out of the swamp.

Pate was sitting on the copper pot cooker the officers had placed on the rear seat of the car. He was shot in the right side and the bullet angled upward and passed near his heart.

Deputy C.H. Driver was the only officer who testified that he saw Williams. “Driver said that when the firing began he turned and looked him (Williams) squarely in the face and when he later saw him in the Raeford jail, he was positive he was the man he saw in the shooting at the edge of the cotton patch,” according to a newspaper account.

The defense tried for more than an hour to keep Dawson off the witness stand. He was under grand jury indictment in the shooting and the fiery Shaw said his testimony would be self-serving.

Kerr ruled against Shaw’s objections and Dawson testified that sometime during the night after the raid, Williams came to him and said, “I heard you were the man who directed the sheriff to the still.”

Dawson testified Williams punched him with the barrel of his rifle. He said he told Williams he was not the informer.

Dawson said Williams told him, “I did some shooting down there the last time and damn it, I shot to kill.”

Dawson testified that Williams came to him again the next morning and asked him to hold his rifle and told him, “If you tell what I told you, it won’t be good for you. I will use this on you and you know I will do it.”

A reporter described the courtroom drama when Williams’ father, J. Claude Williams, took the witness stand:

“The broken-hearted father of the defendant with tears trickling down his cheeks, breaking down at times under the ordeal, told to the jury the rather dramatic story of the life of his wayward boy, of his efforts to restrain him in his youth and ever hoping against hope that in the coming years the lad would reform and would make a real man out of himself.”

Pressed by the prosecution to explain why he didn’t try to have his son committed, the father “almost broke down when he replied that he, like every father who loves his boy, prayed every night and hoped that he would improve without having him confined.”

A father’s efforts

Claude Williams testified that he sent his son to military school at Blackstone, Va., “to help if possible to find out what he really wanted and see if the military was not his place and if that would please the chap he wanted to do what he could for him.”

Col. E.S. Ligon, headmaster at Blackstone, said he dismissed the 17-year-old after he found several guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition in Williams’ trunk. He said he believed that the youth was insane at the time of the discovery, but admitted he allowed him to go home by train by himself.

The father insisted that he did not know his son was operating a liquor still. He said if he had known he would have told the sheriff. He denied on cross examination that he told someone, “I have paid Marshall’s way out of trouble and will spend $10,000 to get him out of the killing of Pate.”

The defense called witness after witness in an effort to prove Williams was insane.

Dr. J. Allison Hodges testified he was convinced the defendant was not in his right mind at the time of the shooting and did not know right from wrong. But, according to The Observer on Oct. 13, Hodges admitted that he reached the conclusion that Marshall was insane “not as the result of his examination of him but after a conference held with members of the family and neighbors.”

A witness named Thornton “told about Marshall going to the Bluff Church yard and digging on a grave because a man buried there gave him some trouble.”

The prosecution countered with its own expert witnesses, among them Dr. Isaac Taylor of Morganton and the Cumberland County coroner, Dr. R.A. Allgood. Both disagreed with the defense’s experts.

Allgood, described by The Observer as one of the leading physicians of the county, testified that he examined Williams. He said that “he did not believe Williams was up to the average intelligence of a boy of his age, but was certain he knew right from wrong and is mentally able to confer with his lawyers.”

Taylor, who said he had 36 years experience with mental patients at the state hospital and at his own clinic in Morganton, testified that he “examined Williams carefully and had listened to all the testimony in the case so far and (was) confident that the young man is a sane man.”

The jurors began their deliberations on Oct. 15. Two days later, they said they were deadlocked.

Only one vote kept Williams from being sentenced to die. The jury foreman said the panel was 11-1 for conviction. The foreman said no amount of argument could convert the one juror who believed Williams was insane.

The case ended in a mistrial.

No new date was set for Williams’ retrial. But on Nov. 21, McLean -- the solicitor who led the prosecution team in the mistrial -- said that Williams’ lawyers had requested a conference and wanted Williams brought to Fayetteville from the Raeford jail. Judge Henry Lane granted the request.

Word spread quickly through the courthouse that something was happening in the Williams murder case. Courthouse officers, members of Williams’ family and an unusually large number of spectators crowded into the courtroom after the midday recess.

Shaw, Williams’ lead lawyer, announced that his client was withdrawing his insanity plea and pleading guilty to second-degree murder. Lane agreed he would read the typewritten evidence of the first trial before passing sentence.

Later in the week, Lane gave Williams 30 years in prison, the maximum sentence for second-degree murder.

There was some unfinished business before Williams could be taken from the courthouse for the trip to prison in Raleigh. Ham Dawson, the still hand who had turned state’s evidence against Williams in July, was tried on the assault charge.

Williams testified that Dawson fired four shots at the officers while Williams fired only once. Williams testified he did not shoot to kill, that when he shot to kill he always hit the mark.

Dawson was found not guilty. He left the courthouse, and The Observer reported as late as 1952 that he was never seen in the area again.

In the final chapter of the Williams-Pate story on Wednesday, the young bootlegger says goodbye to his family and begins serving a 30-year-prison term. A prison camp superintendent befriends Williams and gives him the time and materials needed to build his famous carbine rifle.

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