Johnnie Mae Chappell Story: A denial of justice

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In 1964, four years before Jacksonville would become a consolidated government, the city was very segregated. On March 23 of that year, Johnnie Mae Chappell was killed because she is black. She was looking for her lost wallet near New Kings Road and Flicker Avenue when a shot rang out from a car heading north on New Kings Road


"It is killing and no one really cares, no justice," said Shelton Chappell.

A small memorial marks the spot and the Florida Legislature went a step further and dedicated a section of New Kings Road in her memory in 2005. Johnnie Mae was the mother of 10, and Shelton Chappell is the youngest.

RELATED: 50 years later: A call for justice for Johnnie Mae Chappell

"I can forgive, but I can't forget them because of what they've done and the justice that has not been given to this family," he said.

First Coast News traveled 485 miles and 50 years back to Long Beach, Miss., to talk with the only living detective on the case, former Detective Sergeant Lee Cody

"Witnesses say a dark colored car with loud mufflers is where the shot came from," said Cody.

Cody said when he and his partner Don Coleman began investigating the case they uncovered a cover-up. First, the index card detectives used to identity a case was missing.

"We had never seen that before," Cody said.

Then the initial report from the night of the shooting was discovered under the floor mat of the chief of detectives. Cody believes the intent was to make the case disappear.

"If you would have walked up to the Duval County Sheriff's Office and asked them about the death of Johnnie Mae Chappell they would have said 'Who? We don't have any records for her being killed,'" said Cody.


Cody, who is now 84, remembers the details about his investigation as if it was yesterday. He has kept boxes and boxes of records.

He said five months after Johnnie Mae's death, a Wayne Chessman was taken in for questioning; Cody said Chessman had approached him twice offering to help in a case, but he never said the case.

Cody said he underlined the words "thou shall not kill" in a Bible and stuck it in the desk of the interrogation room.

"I didn't say a word to him, Sgt. Coleman didn't say a word to him," said Cody. "I pulled the Bible out turned it around and shoved it under his nose and said 'Wayne see that commandment underlined in red.' He said 'Yeah I do, but sarge I didn't shoot her I was just in the car.'"

Chessman confessed that he, Elmer Kato, James Davis and J.W. Rich were in the car and that Rich fired the fatal shot.

"I've got Rich's confession in here, a copy of it," said Cody.

His confession was August 11, 1964, nearly five months after the shooting

"They shot her to death, concealed the murder weapon, concealed the crime for five months. As far as the law they're all equally guilty," said the former detective.


During his confession, Rich told the detectives he fired the gun by accident and he said he saw her go down.

-Question: How many times was the weapon fired?

-Answer: One time

-Question: What caused you to shoot it?

-Answer: I don't know, I didn't mean to do it.

The motive, Cody said was always about her race.

"It didn't matter who said it, somebody said 'let's get a n****r.' It was said," Cody said. "And that's what they did."

Chessman, Kato, Davis and Richer were charged with first-degree murder, but the .22 caliber pistol disappeared. The bullet taken from her body was improperly entered as evidence and the detectives on the case were never called to testify.

The all-white jury convicted Rich on manslaughter and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison but served three. The charges against the others were dropped. Cody has written about what he calls a travesty of justice in his book "The 14th Denial."

"I said it in the book, this is the most egregious, unbelievable, tale of corruption and constitutional denial in America," Cody said.


Cody and Coleman were fired shortly after the trial for insubordination; but being the detective that he was, Cody has never stopped telling the Johnnie Mae Chappell story.

He said he was ready to give up in 1996, and that's when he met Shelton Chappell and told him what happened to his mother.

"I lived it and I can't believe it myself," said Cody," I can't believe it."

He said they have knocked on every door looking for justice, the state's attorney, the justice department, the governor's office and so far nothing. Why isn't important enough for some law enforcement agency to right this wrong?

"I'm the only fact witness alive and not one person on earth can ever testify against these people and if I die, it is over. Time is of importance," said Cody.

Shelton said he too would keep telling the story because America and Jacksonville need to know about this injustice.

"When justice come, I will be first to let you know," said Shelton when asked what would give him closure.

Shelton said on Sunday March 23 at 7 p.m., there will be a vigil at the exact location where his mother was innocently gunned down 50 years ago simply because she was black.


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