Leon Chambers

Wilkinson County, Mississippi
Date of Crime:  June 14, 1969

Leon Chambers was convicted of the murder of Sonny Liberty, a police officer. Two Woodville police officers, James Forman and Aaron “Sonny” Liberty, tried to arrest a local youth named C. C. Jackson at Hayes' Café, a bar and pool hall on First West St. However, a crowd of 50 to 60 people gathered who frustrated their arrest attempt. Forman radioed for backup and Liberty removed his riot gun, a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun, from his patrol car.

After three deputy sheriffs arrived, the officers again attempted to make the arrest. In the commotion, five or six pistol shots were fired. Officer Liberty was shot four times in the back with .22 caliber bullets. Before he died, he turned around and fired both barrels of his riot gun into an alley in the area from which the shots appeared to have come. The first shot was wild and high and scattered the crowd standing at the face of the alley. Liberty appeared, however, to take more deliberate aim before the second shot and hit a man in the back of the head and neck as he ran down the alley. That man was Leon Chambers.

One deputy would later testify that he saw Chambers shoot Liberty. Another would testify that he could not see if Chambers had a gun, but saw him “break his arm down” shortly before the shots were fired. However, officers at the scene made no effort to secure Chambers or search for the murder weapon. The deputies said they thought Chambers was dead and attended to Liberty, who was taken to a hospital where he was declared dead on arrival. Three of Chambers friends brought him to the same hospital to which Liberty was taken. Chambers was later charged with murder.

At trial a defense witness testified that he was looking at Chambers when the shooting began and was sure that Chambers did not shoot Liberty. There was also no proof that Chambers had ever owned a gun.

Besides this defense, Chambers' attorneys tried to introduce evidence that another man, Gable McDonald, had shot Officer Liberty. McDonald had left his wife and moved to Louisiana within days of the shooting. When he returned to Woodville five months later, an acquaintance, known as Reverend Stokes, convinced him to give a sworn statement to Chambers' attorneys that he had shot Officer Liberty. Once McDonald's confession was signed, he was turned over to police who put him in jail. A month later, at a preliminary hearing, McDonald repudiated his confession. The local justice of the peace accepted the repudiation and released him from custody. The local authorities undertook no further investigation of his possible involvement.

McDonald had once owned a .22 caliber pistol, but claimed to have lost it many months before the shooting. A lifelong friend of McDonald's was willing to testify that he had seen McDonald shoot Liberty. One of Liberty's cousins was willing to testify that he had seen McDonald with a pistol in his hand immediately after the shooting. Three other witnesses were willing to testify that McDonald had confessed to shooting Liberty prior to his confession to Chambers' attorneys. There was also another witness who disputed a recantation statement by McDonald that he was at a café several blocks away at the time of the shooting.

The trial judge largely thwarted attempts by Chambers' attorneys to introduce evidence against McDonald. The attorneys were able to call McDonald as a witness, but he stuck to his recantation. They were not allowed to impeach his testimony by questioning him adversely. The judge ruled that McDonald was not an adverse witness because he did not implicate Chambers in the murder. The attorneys were also not allowed to call witnesses who heard McDonald confess to the murder, as their testimony was considered unreliable hearsay. Chambers was convicted.

On appeal, the defense asserted that Chambers was denied due process because the trial judge barred much of the evidence that McDonald had shot Liberty rather than Chambers. State courts denied Chambers' appeal, but his appeal eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In Feb. 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in Chambers' favor. It ruled that McDonald was an adverse witness because his exculpatory recantation was inculpatory of Chambers and that Chambers' right to confront and cross-examine an adversary did not depend on which side, prosecution or defense, happened to first call him as a witness.

The Court also noted prohibitions against hearsay were premised on preventing the introduction of unreliable testimony. However, the proposed testimony in Chambers' case was heavily corroborated and did not consist of self-serving statements of McDonald, as they were against his self-interest. The state had asserted that allowing exceptions to the hearsay rule would subvert justice even when given against self-interest. It gave the following hypothetical:

“If the rule were changed, A could be charged with the crime; B could tell C and D that he committed the crime; B could go into hiding and at A's trial C and D would testify as to B's admission of guilt; A could be acquitted and B would return to stand trial; B could then provide several witnesses to testify as to his whereabouts at the time of the crime. The testimony of those witnesses along with A's statement that he really committed the crime could result in B's acquittal. A would be barred from further prosecution because of the protection against double jeopardy. No one could be convicted of perjury as A did not testify at his first trial, B did not lie under oath, and C and D were truthful in their testimony.”

The Court noted that B's absence at trial was critical to the success of the justice-subverting ploy. In Chambers' case McDonald was present to testify. The Court allowed exceptions to the hearsay rule in Chambers' case. Following the Court's reversal of Chamber's conviction, all charges against Chambers were dropped.  [7/07]


References:  Chambers v. Mississippi, News Article, MOJ, Chambers v. State

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Mississippi Cases, Police Officer Murder Cases, Hearsay Testimony