THE RED SUMMER
The Villain Is Captured
Part 3 of 4
The Grand Jury of Laurens County met in the courthouse on July 29, 1919 to hear evidence to determine if there was sufficient cause to bind Hubert Cummings over to a trial jury on the charge of murder. Twenty-three men were chosen. They chose W.T. Dupree as their foreman. After listening to the testimony of Buster and Winnie Wells, along with Cleveland Currington and Sheriff Watson, the jury quickly found that on the 15th day of June, Hubert Cummings did unlawfully, feloniously and wilfully and of his malice aforethought, did kill and murder by shooting the thirty-one-year-old Raymond Cannon with a shotgun which he held in his hand and caused a mortal wound of which the said Raymond Cannon died, contrary to the laws of the State, the good order, peace and dignity thereof.
With Cummings still at large, Solicitor-General E.L .Stephens presented his witnesses to the grand jury seeking to charge someone in the murder. Buster Wells was the natural choice. Although never implicated by Currington, Stephens was able to obtain an indictment for murder from the sympathetic jury.
In one of the speediest trials in Laurens County's history, Buster Wells stood before a jury of all white males in racially charged times. All white juries rarely acquitted black defendants when charged with a felony against whites. Realizing that his mortal fate was imminent, Buster began to uncontrollably sob as the jury returned in just a few minutes and the jury foreman stated, "We find the defendant, Buster Wells, not guilty."
Sheriff Watson quietly kept an eye out for Hubert Cummings. He obtained information that Cummings was continuing to correspond with his family while in hiding. He intercepted several of the letters, tracing them to Welsh, West Virginia. He contacted Sheriff S.A. Daniel, who picked up Cummings, a.k.a. Will Roach, and held him until Watson arrived.
Watson found Cummings in the jail when he arrived. When he got to the depot, he observed nearly five hundred black workers standing outside the depot building until the train arrived.
While in West Virginia, it was reported that Cummings confessed to his crime by admitting he shot a man in Georgia with a shotgun, a fact that was never released to the public. Although Cummings told the sheriff little about the details of the alleged murder, he did start trying to exculpate himself to a reporter for the Macon Telegraph by blaming the whole unfortunate event upon the acquitted Buster Wells.
"I wrote home to some friends a couple of weeks ago. That letter caused my arrest," Cummings stated. Steadfastly proclaiming his innocence, he told the newsman that he begged Sheriff Watson to try him immediately. Watson still feared that lynchers were tying their knots, but more importantly to him, he feared that Cummings would attempt and be successful in escaping his grasp one more time.
Charlie Stinson, M.B. Singleton and Lee Fordham traveled on a car of the M.D. & S. Railroad to see for themselves the accused killer of their friend. Singleton stated that Cummings talked freely of the case and was anxious to come back to Dublin for a trial. To make things a lot simpler for everyone involved, Hubert Cummings was kept in the safe company of the Bibb County jail in Macon until his trial, which was set for early November in the Laurens County Courthouse, a venue which the defense attorney strenuously objected to as being prejudicial to the rights of Cummings to a fair trial.
On November 4, 1919 in the second week of the October term of Laurens County Superior Court, the case of the State of Georgia vs. Hubert Cummings (Case # 2265) was called for trial by Judge John Luther Kent, of Wrightsville. Solicitor-general E.L. Stephens announced ready for the state. John R. Cooper, representing Cummings, reluctantly announced ready.
The courtroom was packed for one of the greatest spectacles the twenty-three-year-old building had ever seen. The weather was fair, cool and foggy as spectators arrived early Tuesday morning at the doors waiting for a prime seat, not taken by members of Cannon's family, other members of the bar and privileged guests.
Forty-four jurors appeared before the court for voir dire. Ben F. Currie was the first to be selected. N.G. Bartlett, I.H. Payne, and J.N. Dixon were excused due to their kinship to the parties or witnesses in the case. C.H. Johnson, W.F. Towson, J.T. Blackshear, H.M. Livingston and A.S. Pritchett filled out the first row of the jury box. J.D. Chambers joined B.O. Rogers, W.L. Herndon, J.E. Johnson and W.D. Dixon on the back row. F.D. Stokes, the jury's foreman, took the last seat.
Cummings nudged Cooper's arm as juror W.F. Towson came up for examination. Towson testified that he had met Cummings on a prior occasion some five years earlier. Although he didn't remember the details, he did recall that the meeting had something to do with some chickens he sold to a Negro named Holliman. Towson, who lived not too far from Thomas Crossroads, denied under intense questioning from defense attorney Cooper that he had ever had a conversation with the defendant, recalling that he did know his brother Virgil, but Hubert would have been a little boy at the time. The solicitor's objection to Cooper's line of questioning was designed to show Towson's bias against his client was sustained.
Cooper put Cummings on the stand for the limited purpose of controverting Towson's testimony. As a witness in own defense Cummings testified, "He come over there and questioned me about some chickens Ira Holliman had and if he ever caught me on his premises again he would send me to the chain gang. I knew him personally at the time. He stayed just above Midville Church."
Towson was recalled to the stand. He couldn't remember having such a conversation with Cummings, but even if he did, he stated, "I would not hold it against him at all. My mind is perfectly impartial between the State and the accused." Judge Kent ruled that Towson was competent to hear the case by overruling the defense's objection that by seating Towson, the defendant would have been deprived of his right to life and liberty contrary to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. (Editor's note: W.F. Towson was the father of William Malcom Towson, a future judge of Laurens County Superior Court.)
The examination of potential jurors went on long after the sun set at 5:40. After a short supper break, the trial began at seven o'clock and continued until late in the foggy night. Cleveland Currington took the stand and told his eyewitness version of the events of June 15th. He stuck to his story that Cummings initiated the conflict after the matter of damages had been settled between Cannon and Buster Wells. Despite Cooper's attempts to controvert his damning testimony, Currington told the jury that he saw Cummings kill his friend Cannon with a single blast of his shot gun.
Sheriff Lester Watson took the stand next, mainly to testify about his attempt to capture the fleeing suspect in Laurens County and throughout the Southeast and some nine hundred to a thousand miles away in West Virginia. The State, presenting only the sole testimony of the friend and employer of the deceased Raymond Cannon, then rested its case.