“Fairness is what justice really is.” —Potter Stewart.
Sometimes, no matter how hard one might try, it becomes personal for a newspaperman. So it was for me at this place which used to be a place but is now no more than a named spot alongside U.S. 61, just north of the Sharkey/Washington county line on some, but not even all, maps.
It has now been almost exactly 22 years ago when on a Saturday night, 65-year-old Thelma Harrison, “Miss Thelma” to most in these parts, was in the process of closing up one of the primary loves of her life, the Percy Store, for the evening.
As she walked across the country store’s parking lot on the night that would be her last, she was approached by a man. To “Miss Thelma,” a keen observer of the human condition if ever t’were such, the situation must have had the all too familiar feel of robbery. Isolated as it was, between Anguilla and Hollandale, the Percy Store had been an inviting target for that crime over the years.
Only months earlier, “Miss Thelma” had attracted national attention by shooting and wounding a young thug who mistook her slim frame and quiet demeanor for frailty.
So I am inclined to think she may well have been reaching for her trusty pistol again when another young thug, this one 27 years old and originally from Rolling Fork, opened fire with a Chinese manufactured AR-15 ripoff assault rifle. Hairston was hit six times by the 7.62 mm ammunition which spewed from the semi-automatic weapon.
Tough to the end, though, she did manage to get off four shots, all of which regrettably missed, even as the military grade shells were literally tearing her apart. She died two hours later at a Greenville hospital.
Two men were arrested later that night and charged with her murder. The car one of them was driving contained a sack full of 7.62 ammunition.
As the news of Hairston’s death spread from Rolling Fork to Hollandale, an expressed combination of sadness and fury ruled with the region. After all, almost everyone knew “Miss Thelma.” She had operated the only commercial establishment within a 15-mile radius for some 16 years. There was a throng at her Hollandale funeral.
Twenty-two years later, the Percy Store is locked and barred, empty except for the memories of when it, along with this little community itself, was alive. Predictably, it died the night “Miss Thelma” did.
The area farmers no longer stop by for gas or a cold drink and some conversation. Their workers no longer come by for the credit and check-cashing which Hairston offered them. This local newspaper editor no longer drops off copies of his product, “paid for” by the “Hollandale News” localinterest column which Hairston faithfully contributed to it.
The week after Hairston’s death, that editor, abandoning both objectivity and his civil libertarian bent, wrote on the Deer Creek Pilot’s editorial page: “Some bastards shot her down like a dog on her little store’s driveway with a cheap, imported assault weapon that delivered death in 7.62 mm increments and were it up to me I would have them hanged. And while in the long run it matters not a whit what I want, what does is the natural sense of justice among all of us with even a trifle of decency which demands an answer to the question: What kind of man can shoot a 65-year-old woman six times?”
The answer to that intemperately posed rhetorical question wound up being answered two years later when the one young man who admitted to having been the “trigger man” copped a plea to manslaughter for which he was sentenced to 20 years with 10 to serve and the other, who prosecutors maintained had “aided, consented, encouraged or assisted” in Hairston’s death by driving her killer to the store, was found not guilty not only of capital murder, but also the lesser charges of manslaughter and conspiracy to commit armed robbery by a Washington County jury.
So, was justice served in any real sense? That, I suppose is one of those eye-of-the-beholder questions, and one which whenever posed, reminds me of the answer a young lawyer once received from Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes when he did: “Justice? This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.”
I don’t travel that stretch of Highway 61 as much as I once did, but every time I do pass here I am saddened, both at what’s become of it, and of the truly nice lady who used to do so much to give it life. And while I do not advocate any newspaper’s using the word “bastard” too often, I must admit that my having done so in reference to the ones who gunned down Thelma is a journalistic sin that has kept me awake nary a night. Not apt to, either.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.