In August 1956, Judge Julian Bennett, in his first case as a judge, handed down this sentence in the Jackson County Courthouse to James Foster for the murder of Jefferson businessman Charlie Drake, one of the town’s most popular citizens: “You will be put to death between the hours of 10 A.M and 3 P.M. on September seventeenth, at the State Penitentiary at Reidsville in a manner prescribed by the sovereign state of Georgia.” James Horace Wood, Nothing But the Truth: Garden City, NY, Doubleday and Company, 1960 (p. 184-185).
James Horace Wood was the lead attorney assigned to defend Foster. Wood, a Jackson County native, had recently returned from a law practice in Atlanta to hang a shingle in his hometown of Commerce. Defending Foster didn’t make him very popular among his county friends, but what Wood did following the verdict virtually made him an outcast in the county and a lawyer unable to pay his bills.
Wood was convinced that Foster was going to be electrocuted for a crime he did not commit. So he decided to continue to represent Foster pro bono. He was driven by an oath he took when he became a lawyer: “I will administer justice without respect to person, and do equal rights to the poor and the rich” (Ibid, p. 181).
While Foster’s own sins of drinking and carousing around with women had gotten him into a position of even being accused of the crime, that certainly didn’t warrant him dying for a crime he didn’t commit.
After the trial, James Wood could have gone back to his practice in Commerce and allowed the harsh judgment of injustice to take its course while he began to earn his living. Instead, he devoted the next two years of his life to freeing an innocent man, causing his own practice to suffer greatly. At one point the power company turned off the lights in his office. Debts mounted with his creditors. Once, he collected money from a client he was helping clear for writing a bad check and he had to go immediately to the bank with the money so one of his checks wouldn’t bounce.
Many people thought he was a fool. People in the community and law enforcement sent people to lawyers out of town rather than direct them to Wood. However, some people who attended the trial could see that there was considerable bias in the case. They started a defense fund for Foster and enough money was given to help Wood gather the additional legal assistance and evidence to help keep his hope for new trial alive.
The big break came fourteen months after the initial trial when Wood received a call from a lawyer in Decatur, GA who had a client in jail who offered some information about the Drake murder. The man in jail gave them credible evidence that the real murderer had confessed to him that he had killed Drake. This eventually led to the discovery of the murder weapon and its positive identification through ballistics. The gun was traced to the suspect. After they were able to place the suspect near the scene of the crime, he was arrested, and he later made a full confession.
Eleven days before James Foster was supposed to die in the electric chair, he was given a stay of execution. Following that he was freed on a $500 bond and granted a new trial. In September, two years after he was convicted of murder, Foster was acquitted by a jury of twelve men in the same county courthouse where he was originally convicted.
The real killer, Charles (Rocky) Rothschild, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Had it not been for one man, James Wood, an innocent man would have died. Yet it wasn’t the first time this man had defended others. He defended our country as he fought against the Germans in the Second World War.
As much as we learn from this man’s sense of justice and self-sacrifice, we can also learn something from him in his victory.
On the day that Rothchild’s confession was going to be read in front of the Jackson County Courthouse to the citizens of Jackson County and a large number of photographers and reporters, James Wood had all of the emotions of the previous two years well up within him like a gusher: bitterness, hate, kindness, devotion, frustration, and despair. He wondered which emotions he would allow to flow out to others as he walked among them on the lawn of the courthouse that day.
He got his answer as he recalled a time that a number of German soldiers were captured by their platoon, soldiers that had earlier killed some of their men.
“Fiery thoughts ran through our heads, every last one of us. I ordered my men to search them, and one of the boys immediately moved down the line and began stripping the Krauts of their medals.”
“Give them back,” I barked.
“To these guys, these bastards?”
“Yeh, that’s right. They won them under their own rules of the game. They’re entitled to wear them.”
A little later one of my men eased up to me.
“I didn’t think you were right at the time, Woody,” he said, “but, thinking it over, I guess you did the right thing” (Ibid, 272-273).
Isn’t that the great challenge each of us face every day – ”to do the right thing?
Proverbs 21:3 says: To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. In other words, our acts of worship don’t really impress God if we do not treat each other fairly, honestly, lovingly, kindly, with respect, and in a way that we would want to be treated ourselves.
There’s a road out there that few people take. It’s the road less traveled. It wasn’t traveled by many in the 1950’s and there still isn’t a traffic jam on that road today. People instinctively know that the toll on that road can be very high.
Doing the right thing often cost a lot. But not doing the right thing cost us a lot more. Just ask the James Fosters of this world.