Ellis Hutson, Sr.

Background

On March 13, 1948, Constable Travis Helpenstill shot and killed Ellis Hutson, Sr., 50, at the Nacogdoches County Courthouse in Nacogdoches, Texas. Hutson, Sr. had come to the Courthouse to post bond for his eldest son, Ellis Hutson, Jr.

The evening before, Helpenstill had arrested twenty-four-year-old Hutson, Jr. for assault. Helpenstill had approached Hutson, Jr. and his cousin to question them on an unrelated matter in which neither were suspects. According to reports, when Hutson, Jr. did not address Helpenstill as “sir,” Helpenstill struck him across the face with a pistol. Hutson, Jr. then hit Helpenstill back, for which he was subsequently badly beaten and arrested.

The next morning, Hutson, Sr. arrived at the county courthouse to post bond for his son. Hutson, Jr. had decided to contest the assault charge. The younger Hutson had decided to contest the assault charge. Helpenstill met Hutson, Sr. at the Courthouse to persuade him to have his son plead guilty. Enraged by Hutson, Jr.’s refusal to take a plea, Helpenstill got into an argument with the County Attorney and reportedly threatened Hutson, Jr.’s attorney, Arthur L. Lowery. Helpenstill then asked Hutson, Sr. to follow him to a nearby corridor to discuss the matter. There, he shot Hutson, Sr. three times, killing him almost instantly.

Legal Status

Helpenstill was indicted by a state grand jury for first-degree murder on May 28, 1948. Reportedly, the first time in Texas post-Civil War history that a peace officer was indicted for murdering an African-American. Claiming Hutson had pulled a knife on him, Helpenstill argued self-defense. On June 10, 1948, a jury found him not guilty.

With the assistance of the Dallas branch of the NAACP, Hutson, Jr. pursued a civil suit in state court against Helpenstill for his father’s death and for the injuries he suffered. Hutson, Jr. reached a settlement for $500 on June 14, 1949.

On February 20, 1950, a federal grand jury indicted Helpenstill for the unlawful arrest and assault of Huston Jr. Helpenstill pled nolo contendre to violating Hutson, Jr.’s civil rights under 18 U.S.C. § 52. The court imposed a 90-day suspended sentence.