By: Jerry R. Barksdale
It was nearing 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 1, 1959, in the tiny community of Gourdsville in northern Limestone County when evil struck. The Limestone Democrat proclaimed it “the county’s most brutal crime in history.” It guaranteed 17-year-old Joe Henry Johnson a seat in “Yellow Mama,” Alabama’s infamous electric chair. He would be the last person from Limestone County to be put to death at the hands of the State. This most odious crime would set my life on a new course.
Johnson, who lived nearby with his parents, raped and brutally murdered Miss Dicie Boyd, age 60, in her barn. He then entered the family home and savagely beat her 89-year-old mother, Rowena Boyd. She survived.
Johnson, with innocent blood still on his hands and underwear, signed two confessions. Bruce Sherill and David Patton, both WWII veterans, were appointed to defend Johnson. The best they could hope for was to save his life. I turned 19 two days after the rape/murder and at the time was a senior at Athens High School in the Diversified Occupation Program, working 70 hours a week at McConnell’s Funeral Home. My goal was to become an undertaker. But Johnson’s trial on January 20, 1960, changed my life and sent me in a different direction. I wanted to become a lawyer like Bruce Sherill. Struggling to save a human life in court seemed romantic and exciting to me at the time. Carrying a briefcase chock-full of mysterious law books and wearing a pinstripe suit looked pretty cool too. On trial date, Johnson plead guilty and asked for mercy. None was given. Twenty-four months and 23 days later, just past midnight, he was electrocuted.
At the time, I knew Bruce only by reputation and sight. His wife, Mary Kate (Garth), had died 9 months earlier at age 37, leaving 7 minor children. Bruce, who never remarried, raised them in the old antebellum Tanner-Garth house (1845) on N. Madison Street. Bruce was handsome with thick gray-blonde hair parted slightly off center, spoke with a cultured Southern accent, and had great command of the English language. He had attended George Washington University before WWII and graduated from Alabama Law School in 1948. I was to learn that Bruce also had a mercurial temperament as well as a humorous side.
In 1971, I met Bruce for the first time in court. It didn’t go well. He had scheduled a deposition before a court reporter on a Saturday morning without consulting me. I called and told him I had two young boys and spent my Saturdays with them. I requested that he reset the deposition to another time. He gave me a lecture. “No sir! Young man the law is a jealous mistress and he who would pursue her must woo her.”
I moved for a protective order and the hearing was set before Judge Newton Powell. Bruce and I were seated across from each other at a small table. He began lecturing me and pretty soon we were standing, nose to nose, shouting at each other. The judge reset the deposition. I won. I should have been happy, but I wasn’t. I knew what I had to do. I called Bruce.
“Bruce, hear me out.” He was silent. “I apologize for my conduct. I’m just a young whipper-snapper and I disrespected you. It was your representation of Joe Henry Johnson that captured my imagination and motivated me to become a lawyer – just like you. I wanted you to know that.”
“Is that all?” he asked.
“Yes sir.” I didn’t know what to expect.
“Whyyy, Jerreee, that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.” And that day we became friends, as close as courtroom gladiators battling each other can be. Bruce was full of great stories. The “keeper of the lore,” I called him.
While he was attending George Washington University, WWII broke out. The clerk of the local draft board summoned Bruce home. “I’m already contributing greatly to the war effort,” he told her.
“Operating the elevator part-time for the Department of War,” he replied.
“Pack your bags, Bruce.” And he was off to war.
I loved Bruce’s humor. In his later years, Bruce talked loud, like someone who had learned to whisper in a sawmill. During the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the end of WWII, I interviewed and wrote over 65 stories of local WWII vets. One day at lunch, I asked Bruce about his war service in the South Pacific, thinking he might have a hair-raising tale of life or death with Japanese. He said that Charles Lindberg, America’s hero who flew the Spirit of St. Louis non-stop from Long Island, New York to Paris in 1927, was at his base. Lindberg, a civilian, was there as a consultant for United Aircraft Company, who manufactured the Corsair Fighter. He was helping squeeze more performance from the airplanes. “My buddy and I were sitting in our tent with the flap rolled up,” said Bruce, loudly, “when Charles Lindberg walked past carrying a roll of toilet paper, headed to the latrine. I said to my buddy, ‘Who back home would believe I saw Charles Lindberg on the way to take dump?’”
Every head in the restaurant turned our way. “That’s the most interesting thing that happened to me during the war,” Bruce added.
“Bruce,” I said, “I don’t think I’ll write that story.” The truth is Bruce was a Lt. Col. In intelligence.
The last time I confronted Bruce in court was during a heated divorce case. He represented the husband, a rather subdued fellow, and I represented his wife who had a volatile temper when angry. And she was angry that day. The judge ordered us into a witness room to work out a settlement. That’s not going to happen, I thought.
“Bruce,” I said to him privately, “my client will go off like firecracker on you and your client. For goodness sake, don’t say a word when she does or we’ll never get this case settled.” And I was correct. She verbally attacked her “sorry” husband and his “crooked” lawyer. Bruce never uttered a word. Finally, after she vented, we settled the case. I couldn’t believe it. Afterwards, I said to Bruce: “You just sat there and never said a word, I just don’t understand.”
“Whyyy, Jerreee, you asked me not to.” I like to think that phone call I made to him 30 years earlier, apologizing for being a young whipper-snapper, contributed to his silence.
Bruce served as Chairman of the City Board of Education, Scoutmaster of Troop 21, Director of Athens Housing Authority, President of Limestone County Bar Association, Alabama Bar Commissioner, and member of the Rotary Club. He was an elder and Sunday school teacher at First Presbyterian Church of Athens. He represented both the Limestone and Athens Boards of Education during the turbulent days of school integration. His steady hand helped bring about a peaceful end to school segregation in Limestone County. Bruce died in 2008 at age 87.
Good lawyers are like chicken teeth. Scarce. Bruce Sherrill was a good one.
By: Jerry R. Barksdale