'Too bad about Jerry'

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

February 14, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Dora Williams was only 2 years old when her Uncle Jerry was sentenced to life in prison -- too young to remember him. Too young to understand.

And so, Uncle Jerry went away.

Few members of the family ever visited him in prison. Rarely did anyone express much outrage or pain over the loss.

And time passed.

Every so often, somebody in the family would mention Uncle Jerry: always with a sad shrug or a shake of the head.

"Too bad about Jerry," they would say. "Too, too bad."

But, it was too bad about the weather, also. And too bad about the cost of eggs and gasoline. It was too, too bad about distant war and local crime.

What can you do? You shrug and you shake your head and time passes and life goes on. Too bad.

"My family told all sorts of stories, each one more involved than the next," said Williams, who is now 35 years old, married, the mother of two children, employed as an office manager at the University of Baltimore.

"They said he was in prison for raping a white woman. Then it was for raping more than one white woman. Then it was that one of the women he raped died.

"They said there was no hope for him," continued Williams. "They gave me the impression that he was guilty although nobody in my family actually attended his trial. I come from a very religious, very strict family and they more or less cut him loose."

One day last fall, Uncle Jerry's name came up again.

"It was really very strange," said Williams, "but this time, something somebody said really stuck with me, really preyed on my mind. I remember thinking, 'What if the poor man is innocent?' "

So it was that last fall Williams wrote the state asking for a transcript of her uncle's trial. She sat down and studied it. And the more she read, the more horrified she became.

"Don't take my word for it," she insisted. "Read the transcript for yourself. Tell me if I'm crazy or what."

The official transcript of the trial of Williams' uncle is not very thick. But it is as shocking and as ugly a document as I ever hope to read.

"No," I told Dora Williams sadly. "You definitely are not crazy."

Jerry Paul Cooper, 19, was convicted of the attempted rape of a 72-year-old southwest Baltimore woman in September 1958. The victim died from causes unrelated to the assault before the case went to trial.

But apparently neither the victim nor any of the witnesses at the scene accused young Cooper of attempted rape. At most, testimony indicated that Cooper had forced his way into her home and knocked her to the floor.

Cooper told police he had tried to sell the woman a newspaper when she used a racial epithet. He said he got angry, shoved the door into her and knocked her down. Later, he told a state psychiatrist that he had offered to sell the newspaper as a ruse to snatch her purse.

The rape charge occurred later, when police produced a signed confession in which Cooper allegedly boasted, "Every once in a while I feel like I want to get something from some white woman, you know what I mean? I want a little bit because I like it better when I get it from a white woman instead of a colored woman."

Cooper signed the statement even though he could not read and write at the time. Later, he insisted that the statement read in court was not the same as the statement police read to him at the precinct and asked him to sign. Even court psychiatrists conceded it was unlikely the confession was genuine.

Nevertheless, the confession formed the sole basis for his conviction on attempted rape. His defense attorney called no witnesses. An angry criminal court judge sentenced the young man to life in prison.

"It was a very prejudicial decision to put it mildly," said retired Judge Solomon Baylor, who was Cooper's defense attorney back then. "It was just an example of racism pure and simple. It was a very tragic case."

Today, Williams is lobbying for her uncle's release. He has a parole hearing scheduled for March. She sends out newsletters to the rest of her family in an attempt to get them involved in the case. She and her mother (Jerry's older sister) have begun to visit him in prison.

"I think it's horrible," she said. "Just horrible. That my uncle has been alone in jail for 32 years. Abandoned by his family. For something he didn't do."

And that is as classic an understatement as ever I have heard.

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