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Book Review: How a Racist Sheriff Railroaded a Disabled Teenager and Got Off

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May 04, 2018

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Review by Jeffrey Toobin
May 3, 2018
Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer for The New Yorker and the chief legal analyst for CNN, is working on a book about Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Trump.

A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found
By Gilbert King
Illustrated. 417 pp. Riverhead Books. $28.

Sheriff Willis McCall, flanked by two deputies.CreditWallace Kirkland/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. famously asserted, “but it bends toward justice.” Well, perhaps. An alternative view is that progress on civil rights in the United States has been episodic and inconsistent, with victory often followed by backlash. The poisonous aftermath of the Supreme Court’s great decision in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, forms the backdrop to Gilbert King’s superb new book, “Beneath a Ruthless Sun.” Rather than accept the justices’ unanimous edict on school integration, much of the South responded with defiance in the courts and violence in the streets, especially in the backwoods. Florida has largely escaped the opprobrium heaped on the other states of the old Confederacy, but it’s to the Sunshine State that King returns with a story of mind-boggling racism and cruelty.

“Ruthless Sun” amounts to a sequel of sorts to King’s “Devil in the Grove,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2013. That book told the story of the aftermath of a 17-year-old girl’s claim of rape in Florida’s Lake County, in 1949, and the fate of four young African-Americans who were suspected of the crime. The new book also concerns a rape case in Lake County, this one in 1957, the victim this time the wife of one of the region’s rising citrus barons. The connecting thread between the two cases is Sheriff Willis McCall, the chief law enforcement official in the county, and a figure of nearly incomprehensible evil.

On the night of Dec. 17, 1957, Blanche Knowles called her lawyer to report that a black perpetrator had invaded her gracious home in Okahumpka. The lawyer reported the crime to the police, and McCall promptly put on the police radio his customary instruction in such circumstances: “Round up every nigger you see.” His will was done, and the deputies took special pleasure in corralling Bubba Hawkins, whose chief crime was having an uncle who was trying to integrate the University of Florida College of Law. (Notwithstanding the Brown decision, and thanks to the reactionary Florida Supreme Court, Virgil Hawkins was never allowed to matriculate.) A few days after the crime, events took an unexpected turn. Even though Knowles described her attacker as black, McCall arrested a white man. The suspect was Jesse Daniels, a 19-year-old neighbor who today would be described as having a developmental disability (probably some form of mental retardation). Cornered by McCall’s uniformed thugs, Daniels signed a confession.

The hero of “Devil in the Grove” was a youngish Thurgood Marshall, the cagey grumpus in his days as a crusading lawyer. His counterpart in King’s new book is far less famous but equally compelling. Mabel Norris Reese ran a struggling weekly newspaper in Lake County, and this middle-aged white woman had the courage and fortitude to challenge the authority of Willis McCall. She may have dressed with uncharacteristic fussiness for the flatlands of Central Florida, complete with “her bebopper’s cat-eye glasses,” but not even burning crosses on her lawn (and worse) intimidated her from her pursuit of McCall’s misdeeds. (Watch for a Streep vs. McDormand brawl for the part.) Reese struck up a friendship with Daniels’s beleaguered mother, and the pair did what they could to stop McCall from putting Jesse away.

On the surface, King’s choice of this case as an illustration of a racist system of justice might seem peculiar. After all, this is the story of a crooked Southern sheriff railroading a white man. But as the story unfolds, it exposes the sinister complexity of American racism. Joe Knowles, who was off on a tryst with another woman when his wife was attacked, let the authorities know that it wouldn’t do for Blanche to have been raped by an African-American. The shame for her, and for him, would have been too great. So McCall obliged by manufacturing the case against the hapless Jesse Daniels. But then there’s another twist. A black man named Sam Wiley Odom is arrested for a different rape in a nearby town, and the evidence makes clear that Odom also raped Blanche. So, in an especially macabre development, McCall and his allies hustled to have Odom executed for the second rape before he could be implicated in the first. Odom duly became the last person executed for rape in Florida’s history.

But what of Jesse Daniels? Even by Lake County standards, the case against him was weak, since it was based almost exclusively on his flimsy, and obviously coerced, confession. (Plus, Blanche said her attacker was black.) So McCall contrived to avoid a trial altogether by having Daniels committed to the State Hospital for the Insane at Chattahoochee; there, at the instigation of the sheriff, the doctors found that Daniels’s mental state made him unfit to stand trial. And in that notorious hellhole, Daniels — who was never convicted of anything — rotted away year after year.

The second half of King’s book follows the long, frustrating labors of Reese, Daniels’s mother and a handful of others, including the first African-American special agent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to free Daniels. As the 1960s yielded to the 1970s, Florida state government took on a more modern cast, and Gov. Reubin Askew demanded investigations of Sheriff McCall in Lake County. But McCall was repeatedly re-elected, and never convicted of anything. As for Jesse Daniels, he was finally released from Chattahoochee after 14 years, on Dec. 4, 1971. A bill in the Florida Legislature to compensate his mother and him for this extended miscarriage of justice kicked around for months, until it was whittled down to $75,000 for Jesse and nothing at all for his mother. Jesse is still alive today, but he has moved away from Lake County.

King tells this complex story with grace and sensitivity, and his narrative never flags. His mastery of the material is complete, though he can’t quite nail down the most provocative theory about the crime that started it all — that Joe Knowles paid Sam Odom to do away with his wife so that he could marry his mistress. King’s occasional detours into such subjects as the history of the citrus industry and Dr. King’s protests in St. Augustine (where he faced some of the ugliest crowds of his career) are welcome and illuminating. The author presents his tale as one of justice triumphing, of the good guys (and gals) coming out on top, of the arc of the universe bending toward justice. (Our 44th president is also a great fan of that Martin Luther King remark, even if the aftermath to his time in office amounts to a refutation of it.) Perhaps Gilbert King needed a glimmer of hope to sustain him through years of toil on this terrible story. He concludes “Beneath a Ruthless Sun” with a quote from his hero, Mabel Norris Reese. The story, she wrote, “all worked out for the best.” Not hardly, in my book.

Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer for The New Yorker and the chief legal analyst for CNN, is working on a book about Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Trump.

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