White Lightning, a movie about police corruption in Arkansas, gives only a very general and fictional retelling of what justice was like in the town and county where Williams was murdered.
Ned Beatty played the fictitious Sheriff J.C. Connors, said by some to be the spitting image of Faulkner County Sheriff Joe Martin, who served as jailer the night Williams died in police custody.
I’ve searched high and low and there seems to be no mainstream re-telling of the exact Marvin Williams story. It reads like such an obvious script for a major movie I’m curious why nothing has been done.
In brief, Williams was a black 21-year old man in May 1960 (serving in the military?) when two white police officers apparently pulled him into a County jail at night where he was beaten to death by police clubs.
The officers reported Williams was so intoxicated he was non-responsive and fell down stairs killing himself by hitting his forehead. An autopsy report stated that Williams had no alcohol in his blood and he died from a blot clot caused by concussions to the back of his head.
The Williams family reached out to lawyers and the FBI for an investigation and were rebuffed completely. The autopsy wasn’t even reviewed.
A few very brief news mentions of the case then get made 25 years later.
First, in August 1985 a trial opens when a witness comes forward no longer afraid to testify:
The case was closed until a former inmate wrote to officials last year saying he saw a black man being beaten by two men the night Mr. Williams was arrested.
Second, in September 1985 an all-white jury acquitted two men.
Two white former policemen were acquitted by an all-white jury today of charges that they beat a black jail inmate to death 25 years ago. A gasp echoed around the courtroom when the verdict was read, ending the trial of O.H. Mullenax, 48 years old, and Marvin Iberg, 50. […] The day after Mr. Williams died, a coroner’s jury cleared the two policemen, saying Mr. Williams had fallen and struck his head on the courthouse steps. But the jury was not shown either an autopsy report that said Mr. Williams had died of a brain hemorrhage caused by a fracture to the back of his skull or results of a blood test that found no alcohol in his blood. Witnesses at the trial of the two former policemen testified that Mr. Williams drank little or nothing and was uninjured before his arrest.
That seems obviously corrupt on the face of it.
Marvin Iberg allegedly had a reputation of being a stereotypical “white power” personality who joined the police to abuse authority.
And then there’s this weird quote by the judge:
Presiding Judge Don Langston said after the verdict that the jury ‘could have gone either way. I think the evidence was there to find a guilty verdict’ or to find an innocent verdict.
The key witness reportedly felt so fearful he had to withhold his testimony for 25 years. Fairness clearly was an issue. Also the witness said he thought jailer Joe Martin was the man who beat Williams to death (Martin later became Sheriff and allegedly so corrupt he inspired a 1973 movie about tax evasion called White Lightning).
After all that in 1985, the 1987 Court of Appeals seems to have written their decision as if there was no barrier to a fair prosecution.
The question presented here is whether these defendants fraudulently concealed evidence. The racial atmosphere of an entire State cannot justly be charged to their personal account. Nor is it true that a black plaintiff’s Section 1983 claim would not have been fairly tried in a federal court in the early sixties…
There are just so many disappointing turns to this case, again I wonder why someone hasn’t at least made a short film about it.
USA Today has been working on a modern “tarnished brass” database of police misconduct, which might help reveal why Marvin Williams’ family was unable to achieve justice.
Every year, tens of thousands of police officers are investigated for serious misconduct — assaulting citizens, driving drunk, planting evidence and lying among other misdeeds. The vast majority get little notice. And there is no public database of disciplined police officers.