Sunday, October 25, 2015

Summer of '65: Murder on the Lake - Part IV

Previous installments:

Richard Leland Romine's trial began on November 29, 1965. Frank Potts and Bryce U. Graham acted as defense attorneys for the North Florence father who had initially faced the charge of First Degree Murder (now known as Capital Murder). A Lauderdale grand jury indicted the 40 year-old Romine on the lesser charge of Second Degree Murder (now known as Felony Murder). Lavern Tate prosecuted for the state.

The trial was unique in that the parents of former high school standout athlete Bobby Stewart didn't feel justice would be done for a Sheffield victim in Lauderdale County. They hired Muscle Shoals attorney Donald Wassner to assist the Lauderdale District Attorney's office in its prosecution of Romine. Their actions may have produced the exact opposite of their intent. Wassner had located in the Shoals in the 1950s. A staunch Republican, he was noted for having been a prisoner of war in WWII, but was also considered an outsider in the then staunchly Democratic area of Northwest Alabama.

The prosecution depicted Romine as leading a group of young Coffee football players, armed with pipes, to confront and attack Stewart. Defense attorney Frank Potts called the defendant to the stand on the fifth day of the trial; Romine related how his son had been bullied and beaten by Stewart at least ten times, perhaps more. He admitted to being at a loss as to the proper way to handle the situation since the Lauderdale County Sheriff's office had not acted. Potts then called a bevy of character witnesses for the defendant, depicting him as a family man with a responsible job. Throughout the trial, Stewart had been presented as a perennial student who socialized with younger boys from Sheffield High who were easily manipulated.

On December 4th, Donald Wassner presented the prosecution's closing arguments while the Lauderdale prosecutors sat silent. The jury took two hours and 23 minutes to acquit Romine.

Editor's Note: It's now been 50 years since the tragic death of Bobby Stewart split the Shoals apart. Both Richard Leland Romine and his son are now deceased, as are the parents of Bobby Stewart. The names of any witnesses, living or dead, have intentionally been omitted from this account.



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