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A Story of Murder and Racial Injustice

by Howard Swindle

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-670-83946-9
Publisher: Viking

Powerfully rendered story of the reign of terror and downfall of a sadistic southern police chief; by the assistant managing editor for the Dallas Morning News. Folks living near tiny Sabine County, Texas, drove around it to avoid not only its notorious racism but also its police chief's speed trap. Thomas Ladner always charged his victims with drunken driving, and any protest was likely to elicit a ``good East Texas ass whipping.'' On Christmas Day, 1987, Junior Garner- -a young black universally respected as an honest, hard worker in nearby Florien, Louisiana—drove into Sabine and was stopped by Ladner, who locked him up without charges. When Garner demanded a phone call, Ladner bludgeoned the prisoner's head with a blackjack until he was comatose. The next morning, Garner lay immobile, and the town doctor sent him to a neurosurgeon in Tyler, a hundred miles away. There, five hours later, Garner died from massive subdural hemorrhages. Texas's ``hitchhiker statute'' permits charges in the county where a victim dies, and a Smith County judge, outraged by the brutal indifference of the killing, convened a grand jury that indicted Ladner for murder. Meanwhile, the FBI investigated, leading to the sheriff's indictment in Sabine for violating Garner's civil rights. The race was on between Smith and Sabine to get a trial going first, for a second trial probably would be disallowed on grounds of double-jeopardy. Sabine was first out of the gate—and Ladner's peers declared him innocent. But after two years of appeals, Texas's highest court permitted Smith County to proceed: Ladner drew 28 years for murder. Narrating these labyrinthine proceedings involving four lawmen, five main witnesses, ten lawyers, three judges, and NAACP representatives, first-time author Swindle demonstrates consummate art in bringing each player vividly alive in order to drive a gripping drama. Virtuoso, enthrallingly authentic portrayal of a pocket of the contemporary Deep South. (Eight pages of b&w photographs—not seen.)