MARION, Alabama — Evelyn Turner says she still has nightmares about what happened in this small Alabama city more than three decades ago. And it involves President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
The year was 1985 and Sessions, then a US attorney, prosecuted an infamous voter fraud case that captured the nation’s attention, and had civil rights leaders rallying behind the accused. Known as the “Marion Three,” Turner, her husband Albert, and Spencer Hogue Jr. faced dozens of charges that their attorneys said were racially motivated. Session’s office disputed that, then and now.
Today, at 80 years old, Turner doesn’t hold back her feelings.
“I hate him just that bad,” she told CNN. “And he shouldn’t be up for anything, not even a dog catcher.”
Albert Turner Sr. was a civil rights activist who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He was King’s field director in Alabama, and began building political power in the black community in Perry County, Alabama, where he formed the Perry County Civic League at a time when segregation was the norm. Evelyn Turner said her husband was devoted to registering blacks to vote, getting more political representation for minorities, more services, and she says, he frequently ran into opposition from the politicians who were used to having Perry County run by their own rules.
“They didn’t want us to be in charge because there’s more black folks in Perry County than there is white,” Turner said, adding her husband “just wanted equal rights for all citizens.”
In January 1985, the Turners and Hogue were indicted by a grand jury on 29 separate counts for allegedly altering absentee ballots in favor of candidates supported by the Perry County Civic League during the September 1984 Democratic primary. Court documents filed by the defense said “this is a “one-sided investigation” designed to intimidate Black voters.” Civil rights advocates called for the charges to be dropped.
Sessions filed court documents at the time denying any nefarious motive: “[A]n effort has been made … to create the impression that this investigation is unfounded or racially motivated. These allegations are false and can only be construed as a part of an effort to poison the jury pool and to attempt to cause witnesses to be reluctant to testify.”
A jury deliberated about four hours and found all three of the accused not guilty.
Turner’s voice became emotional when she talked about Sessions becoming attorney general.
“Sessions has not changed. Have you ever known a leopard to change his spots? I haven’t…. Sessions is still a racist.”
Sessions, who went on to become attorney general of Alabama before being elected to the US Senate, would later explain that his two-lawyer federal prosecution team was understaffed and unprepared to handle the vigorous defense. Some witnesses who previously told investigators their ballots had been tampered with changed their testimony when speaking to the jury.
During Sessions’ 1986 Senate confirmation hearing to become a federal judge, he denied the case was selective prosecution. And today, his spokesperson says the prosecution was an example of the US justice system functioning properly, pointing out that the Marion Three were indicted by a mostly-black grand jury.
Sessions was “bringing this case on behalf of officials in his state who thought that an election wasn’t fair,” said Sarah Isgur Flores, who noted the original voter-fraud complaints came from local black officials who contested election results. “So he went forward and a majority of the jury, their peers, found them innocent. The system worked.”
Flores adds that the fact that Sessions proceeded with a controversial case is a testament to him. “I think it would have been unfortunate had that case not been brought simply because there were black civil rights activists involved,” she said.
And there’s another unlikely advocate for Sessions — the son of Albert and Evelyn Turner. Albert Turner Jr., took over his father’s seat on the Perry County Commission after his father’s death in 2000, and he is a vocal supporter of Sessions.
“In my opinion, he’s not a racist,” Turner said. “In my dealings with him, I have not seen racist tendencies or biases from Sen. Sessions.”
He blames the case on influential black officials and a white district attorney who launched an investigation that contributed to the federal case.
“You had blacks who didn’t like my father, who you know, felt that he was too influential in this community when it came to politics and other aspects of Perry County’s life, and they sought to make sure his influence was diminished by putting him in jail,” Turner said.
Last year, Evelyn Turner saw Sessions at a ceremony in Washington honoring the foot soldiers who marched from Selma. Sessions had sponsored the legislation to bestow the honors and helped set up the event.
But when Sessions went over to give her a hug, she backed off.
“He never said, ‘I’m sorry Miss Turner I put you through that. That it was my job.’ He hasn’t told me that. Then why should I forgive him? But I know in order for me to get to heaven, I know I’m gonna have to forgive him, but I’ll never forget as long as I stay black. I will not forget.”