Willie B. Carlisle

Background

Willie B. Carlisle died on Feb. 19, 1950, after being severely beaten three times by police officers in LaFayette, Alabama. The officers, James R. Clark and Doyle Mitcham, had accused 18-year-old Carlisle of letting the air of a tire on their police cruiser after the officers ejected Carlisle and others from a dance for non-payment. Clark and Mitcham rounded up Carlisle and three other black teenagers on Feb. 18, 1950 and took them to the local jail. While the other teenagers were put into cells, the officers took turns hitting Carlisle with a walking stick and rubber hose, placing him in a cell in between beatings. The officers eventually transported Carlisle to Wheeler Hospital, where doctors treated him before he died the following morning. Carlisle’s cause of death was a severe concussion, which is generally caused by blunt force trauma. His body was covered in bruises and scratches.

Legal Status

Both officers were charged with murder in connection with Carlisle’s death. Sheriff J.M. Abney signed the warrants for the officers after Carlisle’s family declined. Both officers did not return to their positions – Mitcham resigned, while the LaFayette City Council voted to remove Clark from his position. The criminal case proceeded quickly, and the trial for the officers was set for March 22, 1950. Cheers rang out in the packed Chambers County Circuit courthouse after the jury handed down a not guilty verdict against Clark and Mitcham.

However, the case had attracted the attention of the FBI. After the state cases ended, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover directed Special Agent Spencer A. Robb in Mobile, Ala., to begin a thorough investigation of this “grave miscarriage of justice” for possible prosecution as a civil rights violation. Agents interviewed the other three teenagers who had been in the jail with Carlisle, the owner of the funeral home, a doctor who treated Carlisle after the beating and various other witnesses who had been at the jail that night. As a result of the investigation, the case was presented to a federal grand jury on Sept. 19, 1950.

Mitcham pleaded guilty to the charge on Oct. 30, 1950 and sentenced to six months in prison. Clark was tried on that same day, found guilty and sentenced to 10 months in prison. He immediately appealed and was released on $2,000 bail. On Dec. 14, 1951, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Fifth Circuit ruled that the trial judge had not made an error in his charge to the jury. There is no evidence that Clark attempted to further appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.