John Hailman of Oxford, a retired 35-year federal prosecutor with a boatload of fascinating stories (all true) from his career, relates how he was thrown as a novice lawyer into the John Stennis shooting shortly after being hired by the revered Democratic solon.
Because he is an excellent storyteller, Hailman’s book reads like a novel. Somehow he crams into 350 pages intriguing cases ranging from the bank robber whose getaway car wouldn’t start, or the corrupt peg-legged sheriff who tried to fix his trial jury, to, yes, the downfall of nationally renowned “King of Torts,” Dickie Scruggs. It’s all there in Hailman’s “From Midnight to Guntown: A Federal Prosecutor in the Land of Faulkner, Elvis and Emmett Till.”
Back to the John Stennis episode: Three young black men almost ended the life of one of the nation’s most powerful legislators in a random robbery the night of Jan. 23, 1973, that netted them only an antique pocket watch and the senator’s Phi Beta Kappa key. After Stennis parked his car at the curb in front of his home in Northeast D.C. and stepped outside, and as one man blocked his way, he was thrown to the ground by another man with a .22 caliber pistol demanding money. Telling him he was carrying none, Stennis recalled the man saying “I’m going to kill you anyway.” Two bullets hit the aging senator, one in the stomach, severing a vital vein, the other shattering a leg bone.
Though in great pain and shock, Stennis had the presence of mind to tell his wife to have the ambulance take him to Walter Reed Hospital, a move that probably saved his life. As Hailman (who had become onsite handyman) tells, after weeks hospitalized, the tough old senator remarkably fooled everyone and began to recover. What sticks out in Hailman’s memory today is how Republican senators expressed concern and visited their wounded Democratic colleague without a smidgen of partisan divide. “A sharp contrast with today,” he said. At length authorities (FBI deeply involved) charged the three young assailants. When trial began, an all-black jury tried the case. Here was this courtly old gentleman with a rich, deep Southern drawl the primary prosecution witness. As Hailman and other staffers quickly realized, there was little likelihood of convictions and Stennis was urged not to press charges. What stunned him, Hailman tells, is how unrelenting the normally gentle, courteous ex-Kemper County judge remained that the shooter get maximum punishment.
Finally, as the trial was going downhill for prosecutors, a deal was struck for the shooter to plead guilty to a lesser charge. Hailman got the job of closing the deal. A tired, drawn Stennis reluctantly yielded, saying “I will never approve it, but I will not object to whatever you do.”
Stennis would go back to work in the Senate “far too soon” Hailman says, and stand for re-election one more time in 1982. His opponent was a rising young Mississippi GOP star named Haley Barbour.
When Stennis stepped down in 1988 at age 86, he was acclaimed as one of the state’s greatest statesmen.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.