The Brilliant Black Woman Who Defended the Accused Killer of JFK’s Mistress, Part 1

An Excerpt from Mary’s Mosaic

Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Raymond Crump Jr.
Dovey Johnson Roundtree (left). Raymond Crump Jr. being arrested on October 12, 1964 (upper right). Mary Pinchot Meyer murder scene (bottom right). Photo credit: Megavoice / Wikimedia and Lets Roll Forums

Not long ago, on May 21, the African-American lawyer Dovey Johnson Roundtree died. She was 104 years old, and a remarkable human being. Despite staggering odds, she won a seemingly impossible case. Her client was Raymond Crump Jr., who was accused of murdering Mary Pinchot Meyer — mistress of the late John F. Kennedy. The New York Times put the case in context:

Mr. Crump, who had been found near the crime scene, was black and poor. The victim was white, glamorous and supremely well connected. The country, in the summer of 1965, seethed with racial tension amid the surging civil rights movement….

Ms. Roundtree’s defense, which hinged partly on two forensic masterstrokes, made her reputation as a litigator of acuity, concision and steel who could win even the most hopeless trials.

To learn more about this fascinating mystery, please go here, here, here, here and here to see excerpts published earlier by WhoWhatWhy from Peter Janney’s book, Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace: Third Edition (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016).

Janney made it his mission in life to track down the man he considered Meyer’s real killer. In Chapter 4 of his book, which we present below (somewhat compressed), he wrote about Dovey Roundtree herself. He also wrote a riveting chapter on the Crump trial, which we will post in the near future.

Introduction by WhoWhatWhy staff.


Dovey Johnson Roundtree

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Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. — Thomas Jefferson 1

Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play. — Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s propaganda minister)

While the most intense grief attended Mary Pinchot Meyer’s funeral at the National Cathedral on Wednesday, October 14, the Reverend Jesse A. Brown also consoled a member of his own congregation at the Second Baptist Church in Southwest Washington, DC, only a few miles away in distance, yet worlds apart in social class and community. Martha Crump had been undone by Mary Meyer’s murder, too. Her son, twenty-five-year-old Raymond Crump Jr., was in police custody, charged with committing the crime. …

Shortly after Ray Crump’s arrest, Reverend Brown had been trying, through ministry channels, to reach attorney Dovey Johnson Roundtree, someone he often referred to as a “righteous lawyer” and something of a legend already in the black community…. She was an attractive, petite woman with delicate features, and a complexion that belied her fifty years. The only hints of her age were the strands of gray that streaked her hair.

Behind her graceful appearance was a will of iron. “Her voice, like her demeanor, was kind, deliberate and thoughtful,” recalled attorney George Peter Lamb in 1991. “But she’s all business. She likes to look you square in the eye. There was something impossibly appealing about her. It’s difficult not to like this woman.”2

Dovey Roundtree had seen up close the failings and abuses of power in an American legal system rife with racism. Born Dovey Mae Johnson on April 17, 1914, in Charlotte, North Carolina, she never forgot the night her grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham, pushed her, her mother, and her sisters under the kitchen table as members of the Ku Klux Klan approached.

Grandma Rachel extinguished the kerosene lamp, closed all the shutters, and braced her daughter and crying grandchildren for the worst. Like an approaching freight train, howling men on horseback galloped past their house. Grandma Rachel clutched a broom in case she needed a weapon, and her husband, the Reverend Clyde L. Graham, kept vigil through the slats of a shuttered window.

After Dovey’s father died during the influenza epidemic of 1919, Grandma Rachel brought her daughter’s family to live with her and her husband in the parsonage attached to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, where he pastored. To the white bankers in Charlotte, Rachel Graham was just the Negro woman who did their laundry and ironed their shirts. To her granddaughter, “she was a force of nature.” Darkness didn’t scare her. Neither did the weather. While Grandpa Clyde took cover from summer thunderstorms, Grandma Rachel went out to the front porch to shake her fist at the lightning.

The way she saw it, it was Mother Nature who was scaring her family, and that just wouldn’t do.3

“Get that pickaninny out of here!”

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Grandma Rachel’s courage had left an indelible impression on the young Dovey Mae Johnson, perhaps never more so than the day the pair took a trolley to downtown Charlotte. The inquisitive little girl wanted to see how the driver steered the vehicle and punched the tickets, so she took the seat behind him. “Get that pickaninny out of here!” the white driver yelled. “You know she can’t sit there.”

Grandma Rachel took her granddaughter by the hand, yanked the stop cord, and, once descended, walked with her the entire way into town and back again. She was very quiet until much later that evening, when, with her family gathered at the table, she announced,

“Something bad happened to Dovey Mae today.” They listened by the light of the kerosene lamp, the family Bible open in front of Grandpa Clyde. “The mean old conductor man on the trolley car called her a bad name,” she said. “I want to tell you all something. Now hear me, and hear me good. My chillun is as good as anybody.”4 During the years of struggle that followed, Dovey never forgot her grandmother’s words that night.

That day was a galvanizing moment for Dovey Mae. Many years earlier, her grandmother had had a galvanizing moment of her own. When she was still a girl, Rachel had been attacked by the white overseer of a Greensboro farm where her parents had been slaves. “He was meanin’ to bother me,” she told her granddaughter. “I ran and fought, and he stomped on my feet to keep me from runnin’ for good, he said. But I kept runnin’. He wasn’t going to have his way with me.”5

The broken bones in Rachel’s feet never set correctly, and every night after that, she had had to soak her feet and massage them with a homemade salve of mutton tallow and turpentine, just to be able to endure the discomfort of wearing shoes. When Dovey learned this about her grandmother a few years after the incident on the trolley, she better understood something her grandmother used to always say: “No matter what any sign said, what anyone whispered or shouted at you, if you walked tall, no one could bring you down.”6

Grandma Rachel was Dovey Johnson’s beacon. Dovey listened carefully to what her grandmother told her, and she heard loud and clear that the path forward was one of education. Rachel had regaled her grandchildren with stories of her friend, author and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who had worked her way from the cotton fields of South Carolina to found a black women’s college in Florida. She would go on, during the 1930s, to be appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as special adviser for minority affairs and director of African American Affairs in the National Youth Administration.

When Dovey was in seventh grade, Mary McLeod Bethune came to speak at Charlotte’s Emancipation Day celebration. Grandma Rachel took the entire family to the event. “Mary, I want you to meet my grandchildren,” she said to her old friend. After the event, Grandma Rachel took her granddaughter Dovey aside. “She’s somebody,” Grandma Rachel told Dovey, referring to her friend Mary Bethune, “and you can be somebody too.”7

Dovey Mae Johnson attended Spelman College, where she worked three jobs, juggled majors in English and biology to prepare her for the medical career she envisioned, and edited the school newspaper. While there, she met Bill Roundtree, a student at Morehouse College, Spelman’s brother school.

The approaching war and other circumstances would keep them from marriage until some years later.8

Dovey Johnson graduated from Spelman in 1938. In 1941, she became Mary McLeod Bethune’s personal assistant in Washington, DC. The job blew open the young woman’s horizons, introducing her to the day’s leaders, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. With the onset of World War II, Bethune selected her young protégé as one of the 40 black women to train in the first class of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).9

“You are not doing this for yourself,” Bethune told Dovey. “You are doing it for those who will come after you.” Despite her initial ambivalence, Dovey distinguished herself in the fight for a racially integrated WAAC regiment. The experience set her on a path to pursuing a career in justice and legal protection for those who needed it most. Law would become her life’s focus and passion — so much so, it overshadowed her short-lived marriage to Bill Roundtree, which ended in divorce in 1947.10

Studying law at Howard University was an awakening for Dovey Roundtree. As her biographer, Katie McCabe, wrote of Dovey’s passion for the law, “There was a simplicity about it, and an intricacy, and a logic. Closely reasoned opinions, precedents, constitutional principles—these, woven together, made a kind of sense that imposed itself on the scattered reality of human existence.”11 She passed the DC bar exam in December 1950 and was sworn in a few months later, in April 1951. She immediately set about developing a private law practice. Many of her clients came from her church. She allowed the poorest among them to barter for her legal services. In the ten years during which Dovey practiced with her law partner, Julius Robertson, before his untimely death in 1961, the two established a thriving practice.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree

Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Washington DC, 1963. Photo credit: Dovey Johnson Roundtree / Good Black News

After Robertson’s death, Dovey, who had led the vanguard of women ordained to the ministry in African Methodist Episcopal Church that same year, went on to make a name for herself as a one-woman legal aid society and a force to be reckoned with. By the fall of 1964, Dovey Roundtree was a sought-after defense attorney.

So when Reverend Brown contacted her in October 1964 and asked if he could bring a member of his church to her office, attorney Dovey Roundtree had already formed an opinion about the “Towpath Murder” from the front-page newspaper accounts that she had read. “The case sounded cut and dried and all but decided, what with all these so-called eyewitnesses,” she recalled in a 1990 interview by the late author Leo Damore.

She had read the newspaper reports that a tow truck driver near the scene, Henry Wiggins, had identified Ray Crump as the man standing over the corpse. She had also read about the jogger, Lieutenant William L. Mitchell, who had come forward the next day and told police he’d seen a black man dressed like the man Wiggins had described, trailing Mary Meyer as she walked along the canal.

“I met Crump’s mother and his wife,” Roundtree told Damore. “They were all fearfully upset and very worried that something was going to happen to Ray Jr. His mother just worried me to death. She called me day and night. She was afraid there was going to be a killing in the DC jail — which eventually became one of my concerns. He was in the DC jail, and they had predominantly white guards in those days. And those in charge, the captains of the supervisors, were all white men.”12

On her very first trip to the D. C. jail to meet Ray Crump, Dovey found him to be a diminutive little man. “He was no taller than me — I’m five feet four inches — and maybe 140 pounds,” she recalled in 1990. “I never saw anybody as frightened as this man was! Crump was crying; he was pitiful. And to me, he was in a stupor. He asked me that question many times: ‘What was really going on?’ He didn’t know what happened. I had to tell him. He didn’t know a woman had been murdered.”13 She asked him to try to remember everything he did on the day of the murder.

But Crump couldn’t remember very much, and what he did remember he had a hard time expressing. Roundtree was patient. Eventually, a story emerged. Crump had had a fight with his wife, Helena, that morning and he had refused to go to work. Instead, he had met up with a girlfriend named Vivian, whose last name was never made public. Both Crump and his mother, Martha, had finally offered that last bit of information, but Ray hadn’t wanted to reveal his paramour’s identity for fear of repercussions with his wife and the woman’s husband.14

Crump then told Roundtree that he had taken a bus from his house on Stanton Road to a point where he met Vivian in her car. The couple stopped to buy beer, a half pint of whiskey, a bag of potato chips, and some cigarettes.

The $1.50 left over was hardly enough to rent a motel room. “They were trying to figure out where it would be a good place to go,” Roundtree told Leo Damore in 1990. “He’d been fishing on the river on occasion. So it was someplace he knew about.”

“I was goofin’ around,” Crump eventually disclosed.

“And I fully understood what he meant,” Roundtree explained in 1990.

“He had sex — the usual thing. He was drinking and he fell asleep. And the girl left. The next thing he knew he was trying to get himself together and he slipped and fell into the water. That scared him. He almost drowned. He didn’t know how to swim. He was really trying to find his way out of the dang place. He wasn’t familiar with that area at all. And he sort of roamed around. And then he heard something like an explosion.”15

Mary Pinchot Meyer, John F. Kennedy

Newspaper clipping, October 13, 1964 (top left). Mary Pinchot Meyer murder scene, October 12, 1964. (top right). Mary Pinchot Meyer standing to the right of John F. Kennedy, 1962 (bottom left). Foundry Branch Tunnel under the C&O Canal (bottom right). Photo credit: Google Newspaper Archive, Mind Over Mystery, Kiko’s House, C&O Canal National Historical Park

“I tried to pin him down,” Roundtree continued. “I asked him, ‘Well, what did it sound like?’ Crump said he heard something ‘like the backfire of a car,’ but he paid no attention to it. He said he was afraid.”

“Well, what were you afraid of?” Roundtree had asked him.

“I don’t know. I was trying to get out of there and I couldn’t get myself together,” she remembered him responding.

“Well, you were half drunk,” Roundtree replied.

“I had to get home,” Crump had told her. “And then, all hell broke loose. Police all around. I didn’t know what was going on.”

“Do you own a gun?” Roundtree wanted to know. Crump said no. He never owned a firearm. His brother Jimmy had a .22 rifle because Jimmy used to go hunting, but not Crump. He didn’t like hunting. He had never owned a gun and wouldn’t have one with five children in his house, Roundtree recalled.

“That made sense to me, so I didn’t pursue it,” said Roundtree. “He wasn’t given to armed robbery. He didn’t have a record like that. He had a job. He was hustling the best way he could. He wasn’t going out to rob anybody.”16

But Crump did have a misdemeanor record: two drunk and disorderly charges and a conviction for petit larceny. Convicted of shoplifting, he’d been sentenced to sixty days in jail, a substantial sentence for a first offense.

“But it was at the whim of the judge,” Roundtree said in 1990. “We didn’t have dialogues about sentencing like we do now. And it may well have been, according to what Ray told me, that he was drinking at the time. And that could have made the judge angry, that would have aggravated it.”17

Toward the end of their first interview at the DC jail, the bewildered Ray Crump again asked Roundtree, “What was really going on down there?” And again, Roundtree tried to explain that a woman had been murdered and that he had been arrested for the crime. Crump was already withering under the stress of being in prison. He was withdrawing and was increasingly unable to help with his own defense. That vulnerability convinced Roundtree to take his case.

“Instantly, I felt this man was being used as a scapegoat. The crime just didn’t fit him at all,” she recalled. Roundtree believed that Crump didn’t have the temperament to be a killer. “He wouldn’t have the nerve. He was of such meekness, I came to know him to be frightened half out of his wits in fear of his life. And I was afraid for him.”18 So afraid, in fact, that Roundtree did what she had never done for any client: She visited him in jail every day.

But Crump had lied to police about going fishing, and he had lied again about what he had been wearing the day that he was apprehended. Trying to conceal his affair with Vivian, he had put himself in jeopardy with police. For Roundtree, the immediate priority was to find Vivian, his only alibi. She did so with the assistance of her private investigator, Purcell Moore.

Key Bridge, C&O Canal

Key Bridge over C&O Canal Georgetown, Washington, DC. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Daniel Lobo / Flickr (CC0 1.0)

But Vivian made it clear from the outset she didn’t appreciate Dovey Roundtree’s out-of-the blue telephone call to her home. Vivian did, however, corroborate Ray Crump’s story — right down to the details about the beer, potato chips, whiskey, and cigarettes. Her version of events lined up with Crump’s. They had walked out the towpath to a spot adjacent to the Potomac River, she told Roundtree. They drank a little, had sex on some rocks, and Crump fell asleep.

She left without waking him. The corroborating details offered Roundtree her first glimmer of hope. But unfortunately, like Crump, Vivian feared the repercussions of exposing her extramarital affair — she believed her husband might kill her if he learned of it. She refused to testify in court. Only after Roundtree explained that Crump would likely face the death penalty did Vivian agree to sign an affidavit verifying she’d been with Crump the entire morning of the day of the murder, and that he had carried no gun.

But without an appearance at trial, the affidavit was all but worthless. Crump’s fabrications to police would then form the only cornerstone of the government’s case against him. The noose around his neck was tightening.19

When Ray Crump was moved to a cellblock with other prisoners, guards taunted him at night. “How you doing, Crump? You know, it would be a lot easier on you if you just come out and tell what you did.”

Dovey Roundtree believed the guards were trying to extract a confession from Crump. “And I made him promise me. No matter what goes on, you tell the guards: ‘Get my lawyer here.’ Don’t say anything else. I don’t want them beating you up or messing with you. You just say: ‘You get Mrs. Roundtree here.’ And you say it loud, so that somebody in the other cells can hear you. That’s what you’ve got to do. You got to fight fire with fire.”20

Convinced of Ray Crump’s innocence, Roundtree contacted the two attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office of the Legal Aid Society who had been representing him — George Peter Lamb and Ted O’Neill. Even before her formal court appearance on Crump’s behalf on October 28, Roundtree had begun her own investigation.21 She learned that her client-to-be was a high school dropout who had married at seventeen. A father of five, Crump had sustained injuries in a serious automobile accident a few years earlier, and then had been beaten up and robbed by a gang in 1962. During his convalescence from both events, he had become addicted to alcohol. He was dirt poor — he didn’t have a bank account and didn’t own stocks, bonds, real estate, a car, or other valuable property, nor did his wife, parents, or any other person who might be able to assist him in paying the costs of his defense. He was an easy scapegoat. His defense, Roundtree believed, would require a Herculean effort.

Roundtree decided to visit Georgetown, “to familiarize myself with that community,” she explained years later. “I wanted to get a feeling for that place.” The house that Mary Meyer had lived in was still sealed. “Police were still conducting their investigation. They were still around but I had no conversation with them, though I’m sure one of the police officers recognized me, knew who I was. I went out there at least twice within that vicinity, to see what I could see or hear.” While looking at Mary’s studio, Roundtree felt “an unfriendliness there.” A black postman making his rounds, she recalled, “wanted to know what I was doing in the area.”22

C&O Canal

C&O Canal at intersection of Canal Road and Foxhall Road. Photo credit: Google Maps

Retracing Mary Meyer’s route on the day of her murder, Roundtree approached the intersection of 34th and M Streets at the base of the steep hill, where she came upon Dixie Liquors, a small package store adjacent to Key Bridge, known at the time for selling alcohol to the underage well-to-do children of Northwest Washington. Had Crump and his girlfriend stopped there, she wondered, to buy their provisions before walking out on the towpath?

Turning west on Prospect Place, Roundtree approached the picturesque bridge over the C & O Canal to the towpath. She crossed the bridge and followed Mary Meyer’s westerly route, tracing the path that, according to the press, had been Mary Meyer’s daily routine. She passed under the aqueduct from the first column of Key Bridge, and from there she headed toward Fletcher’s Boat House, a total distance of just over two miles. About a half a mile west, she would cross the wooden footbridge and continue to walk the 637.5 feet westward (just over a tenth of a mile) to the exact spot where Mary Meyer’s life had ended.23

The C & O Canal fell under the jurisdiction of the US Park Police, some of whom had taken part in searches for the murder weapon that had killed Mary Meyer. The towpath was usually well patrolled, with Park Police cruisers covering the area from Georgetown to Seneca, Maryland, a tour of 22 miles.

Mounted police on horseback usually covered the four miles from Georgetown to Chain Bridge, patrolling the towpath and the woods between the canal and the Potomac River. Park Police officer Ray Pollan knew the area under the Key Bridge well. He had come to know the regulars who gathered there drinking cheap wine out of paper bags, but he had never seen Ray Crump among them. Pollan had been off-duty the day that Mary Meyer had been killed. Had he been on duty that day, he told Leo Damore, “[t]here probably wouldn’t have been a murder, because I would’ve been there.”24

Had the killer chosen a day when the towpath was relatively unattended?

Even before she became Ray Crump’s attorney, Roundtree was aware of the “heavy heat” coming down on Crump’s case. The young, ardent public defender, George Peter Lamb, had been keeping her informed after she expressed interest in the case. At the time, Lamb was focused on preparing for the preliminary hearing to which Crump was entitled to, regardless of innocence or guilt. Typically, a “prelim,” as public defenders referred to it, would establish the evidence that the police had to support their charge of first-degree murder. Most important for a defendant, the preliminary hearing would afford the accused an opportunity to learn in advance the basis of the charges against him, as well as to allow his attorney to argue a lack of probable cause for his continued incarceration. Without significant evidence, particularly forensic evidence linking a defendant to the crime, there would be no legal basis for further detention. The defendant would, therefore, have to be released.

But it wasn’t an “accident” or “oversight” that the Public Defender’s Office hadn’t been made aware, as they legally should have been, of the FBI Crime Lab report (see appendix 1) that had been delivered to police chief Robert V. Murray on October 16, just four days after the murder.

Had this occurred, there would have been no further grounds to detain Ray Crump. The report clearly documented the lack of any forensic evidence linking Crump to the murder scene or the victim.

Compounding that travesty of justice, not only was Ray Crump being denied a preliminary hearing, but the coroner’s inquest was conducted with an unusual lack of protocol. In 1964 in Washington, the inquest was typically held in a room at the DC morgue. While the inquest carried no actual legal authority, its outcome might influence a judge on matters involving bail or extended incarceration. Most lawyers didn’t even bother to attend a coroner’s inquest, but attorneys in the Public Defender’s office usually attended because it was an opportunity to find out what the government actually had in terms of evidence against their client. The entire proceedings were entered into the court record. “You could nail down to some extent what facts and evidence were known at the time,” recalled George Peter Lamb. “This generally gave you a good opportunity for early discovery.”25

But on the morning of October 19 — before the scheduled eleven o’clock coroner’s inquest into the murder of Mary Meyer — a grand jury had indicted Ray Crump for first-degree murder. This was a considerable departure from legal procedure: Grand juries were usually convened after completion of a coroner’s inquest. It was, in the view of Crump’s Legal Aid attorneys Jake Stein and George Peter Lamb, a deliberate attempt by the government to circumvent a preliminary hearing for Crump. At the inquest itself, Crump’s attorneys asked for a continuance in order to subpoena additional witnesses. The coroner denied the request and proceeded with the inquest over their objections.

Raymond Crump, DC Police Headquarters

Raymond Crump being escorted into DC Police Headquarters, October 12, 1964. Photo credit: Peter Janney / James Fetzer

Asserting that inquest protocol had been violated and that Crump deserved a preliminary hearing, both Stein and Lamb refused to participate in the hearing. “The conniving that went on around this case was astounding,” remembered Lamb.26

In spite of the objections, the coroner’s inquest found that there was sufficient evidence to bring Ray Crump Jr. to trial for the murder of Mary Meyer.

With Crump’s attorneys absent, only one witness was called: Detective Bernie Crooke. His testimony amounted to hearsay. He alleged that the government’s eyewitness, tow truck driver Henry Wiggins, had seen Ray Crump standing over the body of Mary Meyer “from a distance of nearly three quarters of a mile.”27 This was not only a physical impossibility, it was factually incorrect.

The distance—128.6 feet, to be exact—had already been measured by police the day after the murder.28 The all-white six-man jury, many of who were retired government employees, never even questioned the discrepancies.

With the government’s case fortified by both the grand jury’s indictment and the outcome of the coroner’s inquest, Commissioner Sam Wertleb not only denied the defense’s request for a continuance, but also its motions to subpoena six witnesses. Wertleb argued that the grand jury indictment had dispensed with any need for a preliminary hearing. In a separate case (Blue v. United States, 342 F.2d 894 [DC Cir. 1964]), decided only six days later on October 29, the DC Court of Appeals upheld a defendant’s right to a preliminary hearing, arguing: “The denial of an opportunity for a defendant to consider intelligently the value of a pretrial hearing cannot be swept under the rug of a Grand Jury indictment.”29

Without a preliminary hearing, the government could continue to conceal the FBI Crime Lab report from Crump’s defense (see Appendix 1). This appeared to be their strategy. Had Crump been given a preliminary hearing, as he should have been, the FBI Crime Lab report would legally have to have been produced, and it freely acknowledged the holes in the government’s case. Ray Crump would have undoubtedly been released. For nine months, the report would be buried, until finally a frustrated Dovey Roundtree demanded it be delivered. This was clear-cut malfeasance on the part of the government to manipulate the case.

“Despite police spokesmen repeatedly giving out provocative and inflammatory information to the press, all tending to point to the defendant’s guilt,” George Peter Lamb recalled, “they had very little evidence to back it up. They did everything possible to prevent any of the real details of the case being made public. The standard device in hot cases like this was to avoid the discovery process in a preliminary hearing or a coroner’s inquest, and they got away with it. They didn’t want to leave their case against Crump dangling in the wind, and they would do whatever was necessary to keep the defense from being able to see what little real evidence they had.”30

Lamb’s representation of Ray Crump Jr. had left him with an indelible memory. “There was something in Ray Crump that made me from the very beginning believe he wasn’t guilty,” Lamb said more than forty-five years later.

“My measure of him in the cellblock and in the courtroom was that he didn’t do it, and it had to do with how Crump dealt with me, how he answered my questions, how he looked me in the eye. I was a believer in Crump’s innocence and so was Ted O’Neill, who ran the Public Defender’s Office.”31

Dovey Roundtree filed her appearance in the defense of Ray Crump Jr. on October 28, 1964.32 Crump appeared for his arraignment on his indictment for murder two days later, and entered a plea of not guilty. A trial date was set for January 11, 1965.

Roundtree, who had been in contact with Crump’s former defense team, was aware of the prosecution’s strategy. Her first move was to request bond for her client so that he could return to his work and his family. Roundtree hoped that she might have a sympathetic ear in federal district court judge Burnita Shelton Matthews — a Truman appointee who had been a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment since its inception in 1923 and was active in the suffrage movement. But Judge Matthews had a record of siding with the prosecution.

As far as George Peter Lamb was concerned, “Judge Matthews believed all blacks were guilty, and the reason they were guilty was because they were indicted, and therefore they should plead guilty. Anything that a defense lawyer did to slow the process was interfering with justice.”33 True to form, Judge Matthews denied Ray Crump’s bond on the grounds that the government had determined that he was “dangerous” and a “danger to the community.”

An innocent man was being railroaded, Roundtree believed. Sorrow over the death of her grandmother Rachel just five days into her representation of Ray Crump only intensified her commitment to justice for her downtrodden client. The day of Ray Crump’s arraignment, Roundtree had already filed a writ of habeas corpus on his behalf. Rather than attack the validity of the indictment, Roundtree charged that police had beaten Crump following his arrest on October 12, and that there had been a number of irregularities in the legal proceedings, chief among them the denial of a preliminary hearing.

“If there had been an orderly preliminary hearing with some leeway for discovery, we could have raised quite a bit of doubt with respect to probable cause…The government would have proceeded to the grand jury anyway and come back with an indictment, but I believe we could have established a great deal of doubt.”34

The DC district judge denied the writ of habeas corpus on November 9, 1964. Anticipating as much, Roundtree had already begun preparing an appeal for the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. It was a shrewd move: She knew that the appeal wouldn’t be decided for months, and the delay would afford her legal team much-needed time to prepare for trial. She also hoped that the media scrutiny focused on her client would abate in the intervening months.

Dovey Roundtree had another, more immediate situation that needed remedy. Her client was coming undone. His already fragile mental state was unraveling.35 Deteriorating mentally and emotionally, exhibiting signs of paranoia, chronic terror, and increasing despondency, Crump believed his food at the jail was being poisoned. During Roundtree’s daily visits, he cried uncontrollably. “He was pitiful and completely scared, as an innocent man would be,” recalled Roundtree. “He didn’t have a murderer’s temperament.”36

The Roundtree remedy was a flash of brilliance: She filed a motion on November 12, 1964, for a mental examination of Ray Crump. “It was more than just for delay,” she explained years later. “I had difficulty communicating with Crump. He was so withdrawn I came to know that really he was scared half to death.”37 Wondering whether her client was fit to stand trial, Roundtree also feared that brutality and taunting by prison guards would undo Crump completely.

Later that November, Ray Crump underwent a sixty-day psychiatric evaluation at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Having already established that Crump had been robbed and severely beaten in 1962, Roundtree underscored that Crump had endured a head trauma that had never been properly evaluated or diagnosed.

He suffered from excruciating headaches and had been known to have blackouts from binge drinking. He had been drunk the day of his arrest.38 In spite of this, in January 1965, Dr. Dale Cameron, superintendent of St. Elizabeth’s, found Crump competent to stand trial, stating “that [Ray Crump] is not now, and was not, on or about October 12, 1964, suffering from a mental disease or defect.”39

Having removed her client from the perils of the DC jail, if only briefly, Dovey Roundtree awaited word on her appeal of Crump’s denial of a preliminary hearing. The appeal, handed down on June 15, 1965, was denied by a 2-1 decision. Dissenting DC circuit court judge George Thomas Washington sided with Roundtree, arguing “that a defendant is entitled to a preliminary hearing even after an indictment,” and that “a coroner’s inquest was no substitute for a preliminary hearing.”

Judge Washington also noted that only one witness, Detective Bernie Crooke, had been called, and that he “gave mostly hearsay testimony,” and that he was not subjected to cross-examination. Washington also expressed his skepticism on the record regarding Crooke’s claim that “the government’s chief eyewitness [tow truck driver Henry Wiggins] saw the defendant standing over the body from a distance of nearly three quarters of a mile.”40

A dissenting opinion was better than a unanimous decision, but it would do little for Ray Crump’s defense or mental equilibrium.

A Sense of Being Watched

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It was now inevitable that Ray Crump would stand trial for the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer. Already, Dovey Roundtree had begun to acquaint herself with the neighborhoods where Mary Meyer had lived and painted.

She had explored the C & O Canal towpath. As the trial date approached, Roundtree redoubled her efforts to retrace the dead woman’s — and her client’s — steps. “On most Saturday afternoons, or whenever we got the chance,” recalled Roundtree’s first cousin, Jerry Hunter, a student at Howard University’s law school at the time, “we went out to Georgetown and the canal. There wasn’t a blade of grass we didn’t know about.”41

C&O Canal. towpath

C&O Canal from Chain Bridge at the base of the Palisades. Photo credit: David / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

It was during this time that Roundtree became aware that there were many more entrances and exits than the four that the government maintained they had guarded on the day of the murder. On one exploration of the canal towpath, Roundtree and Hunter ran into Detective Bernie Crooke, who wanted to know why they were bothering to investigate the area. “You know he’s guilty,” Roundtree remembered Crooke saying. “Why are you doing this?”42

Someone else was also bothered by Roundtree’s investigations of the towpath. Almost from the beginning, she received phone calls around midnight.

“The caller never spoke,” she wrote in her 2009 autobiography, Justice Older Than the Law, “yet he or she stayed on the line, breathing into the phone until I hung up. Days would pass, and then once again would come the dreaded ring.” She continued:

The calls, it became clear, were tied to my visits to the crime scene. I often had the sense, there, that I was being watched. The sun shone, the park and towpath echoed with the shouts and laughter of runners and picnickers and fishermen on the autumn afternoons when we visited, but I could not shake off the sense of something sinister.

The more we visited the crime scene, the more persistent the calls became, but I kept returning to the towpath area with George and Jerry because I was so absolutely convinced that only by memorizing the area, every tree and blade of grass, would I be fully prepared for anything the prosecution might bring up at trial.43

A False Clue

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In December 1964, Detective Bernie Crooke suddenly informed Roundtree that police had recovered Crump’s hair from the sweater that Mary Meyer had been wearing when she was murdered.44

This was a complete fabrication; the police had recovered no such forensic evidence. But they launched a crusade to permit them to take a sample of Crump’s hair. Eventually, and against his will, they did, and it yielded a match of hair found inside the brimmed golf cap that had been recovered on the day after the murder on the shore of the Potomac River — 684 feet west of the murder scene. Given the eyewitness reports of Henry Wiggins and Lieutenant William Mitchell, both of whom claimed to have seen a “Negro male” wearing a dark-brimmed golf cap, the government, with nothing better to go on, would extol this alleged match as proof that Crump was the cold-blooded killer.

The witnesses’ statements, however, proved only that Crump had lied about wearing the cap. That wasn’t good, but it didn’t amount to murder.

Roundtree Senses Something Strange

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In its zeal to pin Mary Meyer’s killing on Crump, the prosecution ignored an entirely plausible scenario: that Crump had actually told the truth about falling into the river. After all, his cap and Windbreaker had been found in the area where Crump claimed to have slipped off some rocks.

The jacket had been retrieved by police two-tenths of mile west of the murder scene and the cap 416 feet east of where the jacket had been found. At that juncture on the Potomac River shoreline, any attempt to swim the quarter mile across the dangerous river current and undertow would have been daunting even for an accomplished swimmer, let alone someone who was terrified of being in water over his head.45

Who was Mary Pinchot Meyer, Roundtree wanted to know? She was familiar with the newspaper accounts that identified the slain woman as an up-and-coming artist, the niece of former Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot, and a friend of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s. Roundtree knew also that Mary had been divorced, though she was not yet aware that she had only obtained the divorce after granting Cord control over her sons’ education.

Mary Pinchot Meyer

Mary Pinchot Meyer at JFK’s 46th birthday Party. Photo credit: JFK Library / Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

Roundtree was puzzled. Police had reported finding nothing of significance when they searched Mary Meyer’s house. She concluded that someone must have gotten there before them and wiped the place clean. “There was nothing to see; they didn’t even see pictures of her children,” Roundtree remembered.

“I would have certainly expected something connecting her with somebody or with something, because there was precious little found in her dwelling. Nothing could connect her to anybody.”

Unaware of Mary Meyer’s affair with the late President Kennedy, her diary, or her relationship with psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, Roundtree’s instinct told her that something suspicious had taken place, and that this was not some random murder.

Less than two months into the case, she and her defense team had begun to wonder, “Could [Mary Meyer] have been murdered and taken [to the C & O Canal towpath] with everything staged to look different?” She was troubled by something else: What had happened to the stalled Nash Rambler that Henry Wiggins had been called to fix? She pressed her private investigator, Purcell Moore, to find a repair order for the car, or the car’s owner, but he came up dry on both counts.46 Justice was not color-blind, however, and that was one reason she believed that Ray Crump had the deck stacked against him — that, and the fact that the prosecution had no other suspect.

“I thought we had enough evidence to go to trial,” recalled former US attorney David Acheson in an interview for this book in 2008. Acheson had been the Justice Department’s US attorney at the time of Crump’s arrest.

In fact, Acheson, son of former secretary of state Dean Acheson, had the distinguished pedigree typical of Mary Meyer’s Georgetown neighbors. He had personally known Mary well, and had attended Yale in the same class as her ex-husband. He was fully aware that Cord was not the generic “government clerk” that Washington newspapers had made him out to be.

“The prevailing wisdom in the office at the time was that Ray Crump was guilty,” recalled Acheson, “and we had to prosecute somebody. In a murder case like this where you have a plausible suspect, and you don’t have enough evidence to go against anybody else, you really have to go to trial. You’ve gotta show the public you didn’t just kiss the case off.”47

Without Dovey Roundtree’s commitment to Ray Crump’s defense, Mary Meyer’s murder might well have been relegated into history as a random sexual assault gone awry, a twist of fate for a woman who had been so fortunate in so many respects up to that point. Yet Roundtree was committed not just to the defense of her client, of whose innocence she was convinced, but also to the heart and soul of justice itself — the principle of equal protection under the law. And so, before the end of 1964, Dovey Roundtree was prepared to stake her entire professional reputation — as well as her own financial resources — on one of the biggest trials ever to take place in Washington.

Next: Trial By Fire

References

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1. “History, Hume, and the Press,” Letter to John Norvell Washington, dated June 14, 1807, The Letters of Thomas Jefferson: 1743–1826. (Located at the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center). See the following: http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/JefLett.html

2. George Peter Lamb, interview by Leo Damore, May 23, 1991.

3. Katie McCabe, “She Had a Dream,” Washingtonian, March 2002, pp. 52–60, pp. 124–130.

4. Ibid., p. 55.

5. Ibid., p. 56.

6. Ibid., p. 55.

7. Ibid., p. 56.

8. Ibid., p. 60.

9. Ibid., pp. 57–58.

10. Katie McCabe and Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Justice Older Than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), p. 90.

11. McCabe, “She Had a Dream.” p. 60.

12. Dovey Roundtree, interview by Leo Damore, Washington, DC, November 4, 1990.

13. Ibid.

14. The fact that Ray Crump had been with a girlfriend named Vivian on the towpath at the time of Mary Meyer’s murder was revealed to attorney Dovey Roundtree by both Ray Crump himself and by his mother, Martha Crump. Dovey Roundtree, interview by Leo Damore, Washington, DC, April 4, 1992. See also McCabe and Roundtree, Justice Older Than the Law, pp. 195.

15. Dovey Roundtree, interview by Leo Damore, Washington, DC, April 4, 1992.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.; Dovey Roundtree, interviews by Leo Damore, Washington, DC, February 23, 1991, and April 4, 1992. Roundtree’s conversations with the woman named Vivian are also covered in some detail in Justice Older Than the Law, pp. 195–196.

20. Roundtree, interview, February 23, 1991.

21. Roundtree, interview, November 4, 1990.

22. Ibid.

23. The distances mentioned were taken from the trial transcript, United States of America v. Ray Crump, Jr., Defendant, Criminal Case No. 930-64, United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Washington, DC, July 20, 1965, p. 119, pp. 710–711. The distances were measured again by the author on February 6, 2008, using GPS portable technology and found to be accurate within ten feet.

24. US Park Police officer Ray Pollan, interview by Leo Damore, Washington, DC, December 19, 1990.

25. Lamb, interview, May 23, 1991.

26. Ibid.

27. Crump v. Anderson, June 15, 1965, 122 US App. DC, 352 F.2d 649 (DC Cir. 1965). Circuit Judge George Thomas Washington pointed this out in his dissent during Crump’s appeal for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied.

28. Trial transcript., p. 710.

29. Blue v. United States of America, 342 F.2d 894 (DC Cir. 1964), p. 900. The case was argued on May 18, 1964, and decided on October 29, 1964.

30. Lamb, interview, May 23, 1991.

31. George Peter Lamb, interview by the author, May 12, 2010.

32. US v. Ray Crump, Jr., US District Court for the District of Columbia, Criminal No. 930- 64. CJ# 1317-64. “The Clerk of said Court will please enter the appearance of Dovey J. Roundtree and George F. Knox, Sr. as attorneys for defendant in the above entitled cause.” George Peter Lamb and the Legal Aid Association withdrew from the Crump case on November 3, 1964.

33. Lamb, interview, May 23, 1991.

34. Roundtree, interview, November 4, 1990.

35. Ibid.; Dovey Roundtree, interviews by Leo Damore, Washington, DC, September 26, 1990, May 25, 1991, and April 4, 1992. In each of the interviews, Roundtree made it clear that her client, Ray Crump, was deteriorating mentally soon after entering his plea. She continued to believe that he was being abused by prison guards, in spite of daily visits from her and his family.

36. McCabe and Roundtree, Justice Older Than the Law, p. 193.

37. Ibid.

38. US v. Ray Crump, Jr., United States District Court For The District of Columbia. Criminal No. 930-64. Motion for Mental Examination. Filed November 12, 1964. Harry M. Hull, Clerk. The motion also supports Detective Bernie Crooke’s statement to Dovey Roundtree that he had smelled beer when he arrested Crump at approximately 1:15 p.m. on October 12, 1964.

39. Superintendent Dale C. Cameron, MD, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, DC, to Clerk of the Criminal Division for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, January 13, 1965.

40. Crump v. Anderson, pp. 42–59. The transcript of the coroner’s inquest on October 19, 1964, is no longer available.

41. Jerry Hunter, Esq., interview by Leo Damore, Washington, DC, November 6, 1990.

42. Roundtree, interview, February 23, 1991.

43. McCabe and Roundtree, Justice Older Than the Law, p. 197.

44. Roundtree, interview, February 23, 1991.

45. River Patrolman police officer Frederick Q. Byers of the Harbor Patrol testified on three different occasions that he retrieved a jacket alleged to have belonged to Crump at 1:46 p.m on the afternoon of the murder. Trial transcript, p. 408, p. 409, p. 413. The distance computed to Three Sisters Island was from a GPS navigation instrument and Google Earth maps.

46. Both Wiggins and Branch would testify at the murder trial that they had no knowledge of the ownership, the work ticket, or the ultimate disposition of the stalled Nash Rambler sedan or who owned the vehicle. Trial transcript, p. 254, pp. 312–313.

47. David Acheson, interview by the author, Washington, DC, December 10, 2008.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Dovey Johnson Roundtree (MarysMosaic.net) and C&O Canal (David / Wikimedia – CC BY 2.0).

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4 responses to “The Brilliant Black Woman Who Defended the Accused Killer of JFK’s Mistress, Part 1”

  1. Swat says:

    Her story would make a great movie.

  2. james says:

    An obvious case of another CIA murder because Ms Meyer knew too much truth to be allowed to live.

  3. InTheSlithyToves says:

    It’s women of color like Dovey Roundtree that are going to save us from ourselves.

    • hugh wilson says:

      What courage. If our congress critters had one tenth of the personal integrity this woman had we would be in much better shape.