The Icebox Revisited

Houston had one of its most shocking race murders 45 years ago. But exactly whose tragedy was it?

His seven alibi witnesses often appeared confused and inarticulate. He had Johnson confess to the newsboy robberies, for which the defendant was not on trial. He badgered a crying woman on the stand -- a defense witness, no less. Golding essentially wagered his client's life on a single gambit: convincing the jury that the confession had been coerced through police brutality. Proving the argument entailed two huge risks: placing a defendant on the stand and pitting the word of one 17-year-old against that of more than a dozen law enforcement officials. Both would backfire.

The tense defendant testified that he spent the afternoon of the murder playing dominoes, eating cinnamon rolls and sitting with friends. Between 5:30 and six he walked to the canteen, borrowed some gloves and boxed until 10:30. (Various defense witnesses would corroborate these claims, though the exact time frame remained vague.) The following night at 1:30 a.m., six policemen showed up at the house of Johnson's "play-uncle" to arrest him for the newsboy robberies.

His testimony of what happened next:

Billy and his sister, Elaine, were inseparable.
Photo courtesy of Elaine Flowers
Billy and his sister, Elaine, were inseparable.
Billy's last school picture, taken in 1958 -- the year before he disappeared.
Photo courtesy of Elaine Flowers
Billy's last school picture, taken in 1958 -- the year before he disappeared.

HPD officers A.C. Hopper and LeRoy Mouser took Johnson briefly to the station, then made him get on the floorboard as they drove to a deserted roadside. Tell us about the shack. You don't know nothing about no shack? Get out of the car, nigger. You're going to tell us what we want to hear. Johnson got out. Mouser grabbed his arm. Hopper beat him in the head and chest. He fell. They kicked him in the testicles. Hopper aimed a shotgun point-blank at his temple. I ought to kill this nigger black son of a bitch right here. No. Don't. The boy's gonna come through. He's gonna tell us the truth. Right? Now get up and stand in front of the car.

They drove at him, he said. He jumped on the hood to avoid getting hit. Get your ass off my car. I don't want your blood on it. Hopper got out and hit him with the butt end of the shotgun. Now then. If you sign a statement, we can end this. You can see your mother and a lawyer. He told them he would sign.

Hopper and Mouser took him back to the police station. They placed him in a room with officers Kindred and H.C. Mackey. Kindred started typing and asking questions. Where do you work? What's your phone number? You don't sign, we're going on another ride. Killing will be too good for you, boy. We'll hook you up to a coil and electrocute your dick. When did you quit school? What are some of your friends' names? Kindred typed and typed. At 6:30 a.m., the statement was placed before Johnson. He signed without reading it.

Johnson ended this testimony with a forceful protest. He had never seen Bodenheimer, never been in the shack, never raped or killed anyone.

The jury and gallery listened to the story as they would have any other fairy tale, then watched Briscoe launch his response. Every officer involved testified that no such beating and no such threats had occurred. We don't do things like that in Houston, Texas. Hopper and Mouser vigorously denied Johnson's account. Briscoe mocked the defendant: "Did they beat you first and then bring you coffee, or did they bring you coffee and then beat you?" Photos of a naked Johnson, purportedly taken the day after his arrest, showed no bruises or swelling. Briscoe established that the time of arrest was 2:30 a.m. and that newspaper reporters had seen him at the station by three. (Johnson set the time at 1:30; later, two policemen would testify that the arrest had in fact occurred then.)

Duggan, who had replaced Briscoe's uncle on the bench, was known for the latitude he'd give the state. He refused to allow into evidence certain facts that might have bolstered defense claims of coercion -- for example, police had removed Johnson from his county jail cell seven times in August, including one 14-hour period on August 15, during which police reportedly tried to extract yet another confession from him.

Finally, Briscoe asked the defendant if he'd ever "molested anyone else." Johnson said no. During rebuttal, the prosecutor introduced a surprise witness: Johnnie Routte, Johnson's "play-uncle." Routte was a 39-year-old bachelor whose house was a common destination for young black males. He gave them gifts like gold teeth, let them skip school and drink and smoke and watch TV.

Briscoe asked Routte point-blank if he'd ever had anal sex with Johnson. "I couldn't answer that," the witness replied before defense attorneys thundered the obvious objection -- Johnson was being accused of a crime for which he wasn't on trial. Duggan instructed the jury to disregard the question, but he allowed in Routte's signed statement that he was a homosexual and he and Johnson had engaged in anal sex on several occasions. It cemented Briscoe's case: Here was a man seen in the area, who confessed to the crime, who has a bruise on his penis, who has a bunch of friends with blood and hairs on them, who has committed sodomy before and just lied about it on the stand. "If children are going to be secure as they ride down the streets on their bicycles, you are going to have to return the death penalty," he told the jury. "Do this thing."

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