Fifty-one years after Louisville’s first female prosecutor was beaten unconscious and thrown into the Ohio River to drown, a Bellarmine University professor who has researched a book about civil rights trailblazer Alberta Jones is asking Louisville Metro Police to reopen the investigation of her murder.
Jones, who helped integrate the University of Louisville and was the first black woman to pass the Kentucky bar exam, was killed on Aug. 5, 1965, and no one has ever been charged with the crime.
In 2008, the FBI matched a fingerprint found inside her car with a man who was 17 at the time of the murder, but then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Stengel concluded two years later that short of a suspect confessing to the crime, it would be infeasible to prosecute the case.
Stengel cited the loss of evidence and the death of key witnesses.
But in a seven-page letter to be presented to Chief Steve Conrad, Lee Remington Williams, an assistant professor of political science who also is an attorney, says that some key witnesses, including a lead detective and the last person to see Jones alive, are “very much alive.”
She also cites leads that were not fully explored after the fingerprint match eight years ago.
Williams says in the letter that she started to research Jones’ life to write a book about her but that her efforts have evolved into a “quest for justice.”
Jones’ surviving younger sister, 80-year-old Flora Shanklin, said in a phone interview this week that she wholeheartedly supports reopening the case.
“How do you close something that never was solved?” she asked.
Sgt. Phil Russell, a spokesman for the department, said Conrad will review the letter and give it full consideration.
Tom Wine, who succeeded Stengel as commonwealth’s attorney, said Stengel’s conclusion made sense with the information he had at the time, but Wine said that “if there is new information, we would welcome a second review.”
“No matter how old the murder is, if we can prosecute, great,” Wine said.
The FBI in 2008 matched a fingerprint left inside Jones’ car with a man who was 17 at the time of the murder.
In 2008, Detective Terry Jones of the cold case squad interviewed the man, and he could not explain the presence of his fingerprint but denied killing Jones. He said he was a “bookworm” who had just graduated from high school in 1965 and was bound for college, according to a transcript of the police interview.
The man said he never met Jones, according to a transcript of the interview, which is part of the public records cited by Williams. But his brother said in an interview with the CJ this week that they both knew Jones because she was best friends with their pediatrician. The man, who is now 68, could not be reached for comment. The brother said he was home with him the night that Jones was killed.
Williams says in the letter that the man has been described to her as “meek and harmless,” and that she doesn’t think he was the killer.
“I do not think he committed this murder,” she says in the letter. “He knows who did it, though.”
The man is identified in public records but The Courier-Journal is not naming him because he has never been charged in the crime.
Stengel, in his 2010 letter to then-Police Chief Robert White, said it would be impossible to prosecute anyone for the murder because no blood samples from the scene remain for DNA testing, none of the evidence can be found in the police property room and it cannot be determined where the fingerprint was taken in the car.
Citing records in the 1,597 pages released on the case, Williams tries to rebut the letter point by point, particularly its claim that virtually all of the police witnesses are dead.
She notes that retired Detective Carl Corder, who wrote most of the investigative reports and collected most of the evidence, is still alive.
She also disputes that the fingerprint may have been made outside the car _ which was not located for 33 hours after Jones’ death, saying reports show it was left inside the vehicle.
And she said police in 2008 failed to interview several friends that the fingerprint owner mentioned hanging out with, some of whom lived “a stone’s throw” from 2907 Magazine St., where witnesses reported seeing Jones abducted.
She also said the man whose fingerprint was found should be re-interviewed.
Williams said she decided to write a book about Jones in 2003 when she saw a photo of her hanging in U of L’s Brandeis School of Law. Williams was then a first-year student.
Another portrait of her hangs in the office of the Jefferson County Attorney, where she became a prosecutor only six months before her murder.
“I couldn’t believe I didn’t know her,” Williams said. “She did so many things.”
After graduating from Central High School, Jones attended U of L on a scholarship and graduated third in her class. After finishing law school at Howard University, where she ranked fourth, she returned to Louisville and was the first attorney for Muhammad Ali.
Among her accomplishments, according to Williams, she rented voting machines and held classes to teach African Americans how to vote for the candidate of their choice; marched for civil rights in Frankfort and Washington; single-handedly integrated Louisville’s City Hall by forcing officials to hire black employees; and established a fund for a young boy named James “Bucky” Welch who had his arms cut off while trying to save a puppy underneath a train.
David A. Jones Sr., who co-founded Humana Inc., said he befriended her at U of L, where they often sat next to one another in classes because they shared the same name.
He said that he adored her and that he hopes police reinvestigate her death.
“She was smart and funny and humble,” he said. “She had a brilliant career ahead of her. It’s an incredibly sad story.”