Monday, March 29, 2010
Georgia's Oldest Condemned Man
In the last eight decades, only six Laurens County men have been put to death by electrocution. Five of the executions took place in the 1940s. The final death by electrocution occurred in the fall of 1957. While all six of the men executed by the State of Georgia were black, half of the men were sentenced to death for killing a white victim, the other half for killing black women. This is the story of the final crime of Herbert Rozier, who at the age of seventy two, was the oldest man ever executed in the State of Georgia and perhaps one of the oldest man ever electrocuted by any state in the United States.
Early in the evening of April 15, 1943, Herbert Rozier came to the house of Essie Evans, his estranged wife . Rozier opened fire with a shot gun he stole from a trunk in the house of Lula Lord, Miss Iris Minton's washwoman. Essie's son Ed returned the fire. Rozier broke the latch on a window and attempted to enter the house. Essie and another son fled to the safety of a locked room. Frustrated and angry, Rozier left the house and commenced to take an axe and broke the windows and lights of the Evans car. He then took a knife and shredded nearly all of the car's upholstery. Ed Evans, his face still stinging from powder burns from Rozier's shot, fired a shot which inflicted a minor flesh wound on Rozier's left arm.
W.G. Davis and his family were sitting in their living room enjoying a fine spring evening and discussing what Warren the eldest son might be doing in the Navy. Suddenly a commotion was heard coming from Essie Evan's house about a thousand yards down the road. W.G. Davis heard gunshots. Thinking that he needed to quell the fracas, Davis grabbed his gun and said, "I'm going over there." His wife begged him to stay home. Moments later a gun shot rang out, followed by a trio of rapid shots.
As he approached the Rozier home, Davis encountered Herbert Rozier, a seventy-two year old itinerant farmer and frequent malefactor moving away from his estranged wife's house. "Herbert, what is the trouble up there," Davis asked?
Without a hint of a warning and without hesitation Rozier fired his shot gun into Davis's abdomen first with one shot and then fatally with three rapid blasts. Davis attempted to return the fire, but to no avail. Rozier sprinted toward the woods as fast as his septuagenarian body would allow. Davis managed to stumble about sixty three yards until he fell in front of the home of J.H. Davidson, Sr.. He called toward the house for help. With her husband sick in bed, Mrs. Davidson was afraid at first, but she and Alfred Maddox finally summoned her son, J.H. Davidson, Jr., to go out side to see what the matter was. William Henry Lee found old Herbert's shotgun in a ditch about twenty yards from the scene of the shooting. He would later present it to the sheriff, who ascertained that the gun had a cut shell still inside the chamber.
About that time, Walter Davis, the victim's son, came up his father and asked him who shot him. "Old Herbert Rozier shot me all to pieces and I am gone," the elder Davis moaned. Maddox, the younger Davidson and Walter Davis helped put the dying man into the Davidson car. The Davis and Davidson boys raced up the Telfair Road to Claxton's Hospital on Bellevue Avenue, where they were met by Dr. E.B. Claxton.
Dr. Claxton examined the victim and found Davis's entrails protruding from a wound below his ribs "large enough to get a person's hand in it." Claxton removed some packing and a large number of shot from Davis, but the patient succumbed around 2:10 the following morning. While still conscious, Davis was aware that he was dying. Just as if he knew all of the essential legal elements of a dying declaration, Davis calmly related the entire series of events of the moments leading up to his encounter with Rozier.
Deputy Sheriff Baum Wilkes raced to the crime scene. Bloodhounds were brought in to follow the scent of the suspect. A small army of deputies and state patrolmen combed the community for the whereabouts of Rozier. Deputy Wilkes went to the Henry Tolbridge house, where he knew Rozier had been earlier in the evening. His eyes constantly scanning for evidence, Wilkes observed blood on the floor of the inside of the house. The deputy followed a trail of blood back to the scene of the crime. Owing to the darkness of the night, Wilkes resumed his pursuit of the perpetrator the following morning. With the aid of Joe Guyton, Deputy Wilkes crossed the Turkey Creek bridge at the store and found Rozier hiding in a house about five miles from the murder scene. Rozier was armed. Guyton pleaded to the old man to surrender, which he did without resistance. Rozier, still wearing his blood stained jacket, confessed that he did it because he was mad that Ed Evans had shot him.
A day after his death, the body of W.G. Davis was funeralized at Bluewater Church. In his funeral, Rev. Claude Vines praised the memory of the Monroe native and popular farmer. Ben Burch, Douglas Shepard, W.H. Shuman, Coke Brown, W.P. Roche and Dee Sessions carried Davis's body to its final resting place in Northview Cemetery.
Herbert Rozier was taken to a Macon jail for safekeeping. Rufus I. Stephens was appointed to represent him in his murder trial. At the trial, Dr. Claxton, Walter Davis, Mrs. J.H. Davidson and J.H. Davidson, Jr. were allowed to testify as to the statements made by the victim. Each time Stephens repeated his objections to the testimony as hearsay. Hearsay statements are out of court statements made for the purpose of proving the truth of the statement. Normally, such statements are not allowed because the maker of the statement is not available for cross examination.
Obviously Davis couldn't be asked about what he said, because he was in the cemetery. But all rules have exceptions. Courts have always recognized a "dying declaration" as an exception to the hearsay rule. Statements made by one who is dying and knows they are dying have some degree of reliability and are admissable.
It is a question for the jury to determine the weight of the evidence, responded Solicitors James F. Nelson and Lester Watson.
Rozier was found guilty. His attorney appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia objecting the admissibility of Davis's statements and to the voluntariness of Rozier's alleged confession. The court reasoned that Davis's declarations to the witnesses were admissible and that the testimony of Essie and Ed Evans corroborated Rozier's confession to Deputy Wilkes in unanimously upholding the trial court's verdict, declaring that Herbert Rozier must die.
On April 17, 1944, Wilkes accompanied Albert Curry, Davis's brother-in-law, and two of Davis's brothers to Tattnall State Prison near Reidsville to witness the execution of Herbert Rozier. Just after noon, Rozier, then seventy two years old, was strapped into the state's electric chair and put to death. Following the elimination of the electric chair as a means of execution, it is likely that Herbert Rozier of Laurens County, will remain as the oldest person in Georgia and one of the oldest in the nation to be executed by electrocution.