He meant to kill our dads, too

Published 11:59 pm Friday, January 23, 2009

If you read a state newspaper this weekend, you’ll likely see a story with a small headline that says something like this, “Alabama wins round in death penalty case.”

It may look like a small story to most readers, but to Andalusia resident Jeanice Paul Kirkland and to me, it’s a huge story.

Billy Joe Magwood was convicted of gunning down Coffee County Sheriff Neil Grantham in the jail parking lot in Elba on March 1, 1979. He was sentenced to death June 2, 1981.

After an appeal, Magwood’s capital murder conviction was upheld but he was granted a new sentencing hearing. He was resentenced to death in 1986 and set about challenging that.

Magwood succeeded with a 1997 petition when a federal judge ruled in his favor on two technicalities, including not having an effective lawyer.

The state appealed, and a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned the lower court’s ruling on Friday. Attorney General Troy King, who also grew up in Elba and frequently works this story into his speeches, continues to push for an execution date.

What the story doesn’t say is that Magwood had a hit list of five people that March morning. His list included Jeanice’s late father, Judge Eris Paul; my father, who still publishes the newspaper in Elba; an attorney; and a car dealer. Magwood’s motives were related to his arrest for a relatively minor drug charge and the repossession of his automobile.

The story also doesn’t say that Sheriff Grantham stopped by the newspaper office that March morning to pick up a newspaper and invited Daddy over to the jail for breakfast; that Daddy asked for a raincheck and was likely the last person to see his friend and fishing buddy alive. A few minutes later, three blocks away, the sheriff was murdered.

What I remember most about the day was a kind of stunned, surreal silence. We only knew about the threats to our father and others because we read about them in another paper. But I have always wondered, “What if?”

Not long ago, I asked my dad about that. With almost 30 years of putting it into perspective, he still wonders the same thing. If he had gone, might he have somehow stopped the murder? Or would he, too, have lost his life?

We will never know the answers. But every time bits of this story resurface, we are all reminded that small, seemingly inconsequential decisions can have long-lasting effects on our lives.

But for the grace of God and those small decisions, the Paul, Cox, Butts and Cook families also would be listed as victims in this story, in which the Grantham family has waited three decades for an end.