In 1984, not long after returning to my native state to head investigative efforts for the Arkansas Democrat, I became embroiled in the 24-year-old murder of a Black U.S. Army veteran that would stun the consciences of many across our state and nation.
This case would become a year-long effort, leading to one of the most challenging of my reporting career.
The brutal slaying of 21-year-old Marvin Williams of Menifee in the Faulkner County jail on a stormy night on May 6, 1960, would lead to murder indictments against two white former Conway police officers who'd arrested Marvin for intoxication, although an autopsy showed no alcohol in his system.
Today, Marvin's younger brother, Ronnie Williams, the 66-year-old vice president of Student Services and Institutional Diversity at the University of Central Arkansas, has completed a book that revisits Marvin's case. It promises to be not only compelling but pertinent in this era of race relations.
I met Ronnie in 1984 after a white, one-armed Cummins inmate named Charles Hackney sent a letter saying he'd witnessed two white men in uniform drag Marvin into the upstairs cell block and begin to savagely beat him.
Hackney said he'd watched that night as the officers then moved Marvin's body into an unoccupied women's cell across the cell block and heard one comment: "That ought to take care of that Black SOB forever."
Hackney told me he didn't know the victim's name, only that he was Black and the assault occurred late on a spring night about 1961 as a tornado was threatening the town. Early the next morning, Hackney said, two law enforcement officials threatened him into lying to a coroner's inquest that day.
That sent me to the newspaper's library, where I spent several hours poring over every microfiche edition published in 1961 for a story about a Conway tornado. There was nothing.
On a hunch, I flipped back to 1960 and repeated the process, finally arriving in May. Sure enough, there was the tornado story along with an account on another page about a Black man named Marvin Williams who'd died in custody during the storm. He'd supposedly stumbled forward in his alleged stupor, striking his forehead on stairs leading into the Faulkner County jail.
Armed with a date and name, I tracked down Marvin's family, father Delavah (DV), mother Johnie, Ronnie and six sisters who lived in nearby Menifee. DV worked in the warehouse at a local furniture store; I walked into the vast storage facility to meet the soft-spoken man in his 70s.
Explaining why I'd come, I said I wouldn't reopen 24-year-old wounds if the family didn't want that. He looked into my eyes and said, "Mr. Masterson, I want to know what happened to my son before I die."
That's when I met Ronnie, who had been only 7 when he lost his only brother. I asked if he, as an interested family member, would check with the local mortuary for a copy of Marvin's autopsy report.
He initially was told they couldn't locate it. So I asked if he'd return the next day and ask again under threat of retaining an attorney if necessary. They then surrendered most of that extensive report that detailed the 1960 autopsy performed by Dr. Edward O. Fox, a UAMS pathology resident at the time.
I reached Dr. Fox, by then a hospital pathologist in New Jersey, and asked if he recalled performing Marvin's autopsy. He instantly responded: "Oh, you're talking about the Black man the cops beat to death."
He said Marvin's skull had been fatally fractured behind his ear, rather than from a forward fall. He also ruled the manner of death as undetermined through an unusually thorough autopsy in hopes one day someone would see the forensic truth.
Not being from Arkansas, and with our state a few years removed from the Little Rock Central crisis, young Dr. Fox believed his budding career would be jeopardized had he dared rule Marvin's death a homicide in custody of white officers.
The next step was an FOIA request for a transcript of that coroner's inquest, which had been filed with the office of the local circuit judge (who been the prosecutor in that inquest). Remarkably enough, the judge produced that revealing document.
The members of that hastily called inquest quickly exonerated the arresting officers of wrongdoing, and didn't bother waiting to review Dr. Fox's autopsy findings, which refuted the officers' sworn versions.
Thus began the steadily unfolding story of a murder that, as the reporting progressed, would spread: Into then-Gov. Bill Clinton's office, who named a special prosecutor; across national airwaves on ABCs "20/20"; to a revealing exhumation, then first-degree-murder indictments; and ultimately to an emotional trial in a Conway courtroom.
Ronnie and I agree Marvin's case was replete with undeniable GodNods that offered guidance and revelations at every turn. I'll keep you posted when his page-turner becomes available.
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]