Thursday


Heartless killer or a wronged man?


Alderman before execution.

Jack Alderman had just finished his plate of spaghetti bolognese and refilled his dinner companion's glass, when police walked into the restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, on the evening of September 5, 1974, and charged him with the murder of his wife.

The 21-year-old supermarket worker looked genuinely devastated and seemed speechless with shock. Later at police headquarters he admitted he'd had "a few words" with his 20-year-old wife Barbara Jean,  that evening and she had gone to her grandmother's house "to cool off."

He had gone for an Italian meal with a friend and intended to pick up Barbara Jean later on and "make it up to her" and maybe get her a present. We love each other," he told detectives. "I would never hurt her."
It was a story that Jack Alderman would obstinately stick to for the next 34 years and which would make him the longest serving prisoner on America's death row.

He spent the time in a cage measuring two yards by three - and every day he protested his innocence. And when, in September, 2008, Alderman, then 55, was executed by lethal injection his last words were: "I want you to know I never harmed my darling wife."

For more than three decades his lawyers had urged Jack Alderman to admit to the crime, plea-bargain — and save his life. He would then have been jailed and almost certainly released on parole after a few years.

But Alderman always refused to bargain. "There's no point in lying," he told his legal team, who campaigned free of charge for his release. "We must have values and I'm prepared to die for mine. All they can do is kill me — they can't break me." 

Attorney Michael Siem, who was with him when he died, said that Alderman had been a model prisoner and had been a valued mentor and peace-maker to other inmates, but this had not been enough to win him clemency under the Georgia judicial system.

The case against Alderman had been based on the testimony of a local drug-dealer, John Arthur Brown, who claimed that Alderman had asked him to help him kill his wife and he had done so by smashing Barbara Jean's head with an iron bar. 

Brown pleaded guilty to murder and got a prison sentence after testifying against Jack Alderman. He was released after 12 years, returned to his drug habit and committed suicide in New York in 2000.

It was in September 1972 that two teenage boys cycling along the edge of Dasher's Creek near Savannah saw a car in the water. The driver's door was open and the youngsters waded through the waist-deep current to see if anyone was in the vehicle.

A young woman was crouched behind the steering wheel. The rescuers tugged her free and pulled her to the bank but they knew instinctively that she was dead.

Called to the scene, it was obvious to Sheriff Jim Fulcher and his deputy Dave Randall that this was no accident — there was no way the Pontiac could have swerved out of control and wedged itself through such a narrow gap between two sturdy black gum trees.

The car was registered to Jack and Barbara Jean Alderman but when police called at their address in Savannah no one was home. Working on the assumption that the body was that of Barbara Jean, detectives discovered she worked for the city of Savannah's treasurer's department and had been raised by her grandmother whose home was less than a mile from Dasher's Creek.            

Pathologists found a wound at the base of Barbara's skull but that wouldn't have killed her. Death was actually by drowning and experts were convinced that the "accident" had been staged. When found enjoying a meal in the Italian restaurant, Jack Alderman was asked to identify the body. "When the sheet was pulled back from the face he just said: 'Yeah, that's my wife," Sheriff Fulcher would later tell a court. "We studied him for some kind of reaction, shock or grief but there was none. There were also suspicious stains on his shirt and trousers."

Alderman resolutely denied any knowledge of how his wife had died or how she had ended up in Dasher's Creek, but the police evidence against him was slowly mounting.

Relatives confirmed that the marriage had been stormy and that the couple's house had twice caught fire. There was apparently some suspicion that Alderman had ignited the fires himself with the intention of killing or gravely injuring his wife. The manager of the supermarket where Alderman worked said that he had asked for $100 advance on his salary to buy a motor cycle, and had another man with him at the time.

The search began for the companion who had been with Alderman in two bars and in the spaghetti restaurant and detectives eventually came up with the name of John Arthur Brown.

Police were now working on the assumption that Barbara Jean had been killed in her apartment and then transported to Dasher's Creek, probably with the help of an accomplice.

Hauled in for questioning, Brown quickly confirmed the truth of the theory. Alderman had asked him to help murder Barbara Jean. Twice during the previous week, Alderman had steeled himself to do the job but had chickened out.

Brown later told a Savannah court that Alderman's $100 advance was a downpayment on further money Brown would receive from a $20,000 life insurance payout Alderman would get when his wife was dead. 
Brown claimed that he and Alderman had gone to Alderman's apartment and found Barbara Jean in the kitchen washing up. Brown attacked her with an iron bar which stunned but didn't kill her.

"She tried to escape but we pulled her on to the floor and Jack choked her until she passed out. Then we dragged her to the bathroom and held her under water until she died." Brown alleged that he and Alderman later took the body to the creek in the Pontiac and pushed the car into the creek to simulate an accident. 

"At the joint murder trial in 1975, Jack Alderman described Brown as a "mentally sick person" and denied that he had helped Brown kill Barbara Jean.

He said that on the fatal night, Barbara Jean had driven off in their car after an argument. He later went to find his wife and apologise — and found her body in the car which had plunged into Dasher's Creek.

"I picked up Barbara Jean and put her head in my lap," he told the court. I realised she was dead and then I panicked and went back to Savannah and had a few drinks and a meal. Three of Alderman's cellmates testified that he had told them he had been planning to kill his wife for a long time. He no longer loved her and wanted to return to his previous wife with whom he'd had a child. The jury took less than two hours to find both men guilty. Brown was jailed and Alderman sentenced to death.

Three decades later Jack Alderman had endured nearly a dozen appeals and a retrial and was still waiting to die. As recently as April 2008 lawyers claimed to have uncovered new evidence which would justify another retrial but their request was denied.

"Jack Alderman's case was one of omissions, errors, missing evidence, one man's word against another and behind-the-scenes deals," said defence attorney Michael Siem. "But with both Brown and Alderman now dead, hope of finding out the truth has effectively died too. We will probably never know now whether Jack Alderman was a heartless killer or a man who was wrongly sent to his death."

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