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Prison records convinced Cold Case Task Force Bonner might confess

It was an examination of David Bonner’s prison records that convinced Covington County Cold Case Task Force members they could get closure for the family of Ed Smith, who was murdered 38 years ago this week in Florala.

David Bonner is shown in an Alabama Department of Corrections mug shot. He is serving a life sentence in Holman Prison.

David Bonner is shown in an Alabama Department of Corrections mug shot. He is serving a life sentence in Holman Prison.

District Attorney Walt Merrell said he directed the Cold Case Task Force to reopen the investigation into the murder in 2013. But there were obstacles. There was no police case file found, and Merrell described the DA’s file from the 1978 trial as “so thin, it was anemic.”

“All but one of the Florala police officers that worked the original investigation, as well as most of the witnesses had passed away,” Merrell said. “Most of the jurors, the district attorney who prosecuted the case, the judge, and one of the defense attorneys were dead.”

Bonner had been prosecuted for the murder in 1978, but was acquitted. He was later found guilty of a Montgomery County murder, and is serving a life without parole sentence in Holman Prison.

David Harrell, who led cold case investigation said, “We did our best to piece what was still left, back together. Every time we looked at the evidence, we always came back to Bonner. We eliminated every other reasonable hypothesis about who might have killed Mr. Smith. All we were left with was whether he had an accomplice.”

Merrell said the family was aware that Bonner could not be prosecuted again for the murder because the Constitution protects citizens from double jeopardy.

“Even so, they wanted closure and we wanted to try to provide that to them,” Merrell said.

As part of their investigation, the Cold Case Task Force looked at Bonner’s prison record since 1995, and identified a few notable patterns.

Harrell said, “We saw a marked decrease in the number of disciplinarians he received. At the same time, we saw a pattern where he began taking instructional classes on empathy, the effects of crime and victims’ recognition, all while he was steadily increasing his involvement in prison church ministry.”

With that in mind, two members of the Cold Case Task Force went to Holman Prison, a maximum-security facility near Atmore, Alabama, to interview Bonner. They began the interview process on the morning of Nov. 19, 2015.

Initially, Bonner refused to discuss the murder, calling into question witness statements and evidence collected from back in 1978.

But the investigators said t hey appealed to Bonner’s sympathies, reminding him this was not about prosecution but about closure for the Smith family.

They called on his empathy training and his Christian faith, and asked him to reconsider his position. Near the end of that interview, investigators said, Bonner indicated that he would describe what happened to Ed Smith, but he would not discuss it with law enforcement.

Harrell said, “Bonner then told us that if the victim’s son would meet with him, he would tell him how Ed Smith died.

“It was an unusual request. We had to consider the safety of everyone involved,” Harrell said. “We had to consider the safety of everyone involved. We had to get special permission to even try it, and of course, there were no guarantees at all.”

Investigators returned to Holman the next day with Ed Smith’s son, Charles. Investigators said they did not honor Bonner’s request to meet with Smith alone.

“Two investigators were in the room the whole time, and Bonner was shackled,” Harrell said. “Mr. Smith was never in any danger and Bonner got to look him in the eyes and apologize.”

Bonner gave full, detailed confession, they said.

A man who lived in Florala at the time who was known as “Bluejack” suggested to Bonner that he wanted to rob Ed Smith because he kept a lot of money in his pocket.

 

Bonner stated that he never heard back from Bluejack. But a few weeks later, he met a girl in Florida and wanted to take her out on a date, but he lacked the money. Bonner decided to rob Smith himself.

Bonner told Charles Smith and investigators he ran home from work on Jan. 3, 1978, and took his stepfather’s pistol. He walked to Smith’s station, a few blocks away.

Bonner said when he entered the store he pointed the pistol at Smith and told him it was a robbery, investigators said. Bonner said Smith told him to “give up the gun” and get out of the store. Bonner stated that Mr. Smith tried to take the gun away from him, and he shot him the first time. Bonner then detailed the events that followed and how he fled the scene. He described how he went to a basketball game soon after, to create an alibi, and started a fight at the games so that he could interact with police.

Harrell said investigators verified Bonner’s story.

“He also identified a few people who could verify everything about his story except the murder itself,” Harrell said. “ We knew about the fight, but he told us about folks who gave him a ride that night, and someone he gave the money to, right before he started the fight. It all checked out. We interviewed those witnesses and they confirmed everything he told us.”

Merrell thanked the members of the Cold Case Task Force who worked hard to find a measure of closure for the Smith family.

“Justice doesn’t always come in the form of a prosecution. Bonner will die in prison, but the Smith family has answers. Those answers are what most important right are now. That is justice to them.”