The Brilliant Black Woman Who Defended the Accused Killer of JFK’s Mistress, Part 2

Dovey Johnson Roundtree

Part 1 of this two-part series presented significant scenes from Dovey Roundtree’s childhood in the old south; some were as bad as you might expect. Hiding in the dark under the kitchen table while a screaming mob of Ku Klux Klansmen thundered by on horseback. Or the time she sat behind a trolley car driver to watch him work, and he said to her grandmother, “Get that pickaninny out of here! You know she can’t sit there.”  

Education was the way out, and Roundtree worked three jobs to put herself through college. Eventually she went to law school. Her biographer, Katie McCabe, said of her 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.  

Part 2 includes riveting scenes of Roundtree in action, demonstrating all of the above, including a few things she did not learn in school.

Below is a compressed excerpt from Chapter 5, “Trial by Fire,” of 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). To see Chapter 4, which focuses mostly on Dovey Roundtree herself, please go here. (To see excerpts from the book posted earlier, please go here, here, here, here, and here. The last two are about who the real killer may have been.)


On Monday, July 19, 1965, a 300-person jury pool convened in Courtroom 8, where the laborious process of jury selection would take all day. Dovey Roundtree and her defense team scored a partial victory with a jury of eight blacks and four whites; seven of the twelve jurors were women. There were also four alternate jurors. Before retiring for the day, the jury selected their foreman: Edward O. Savwoir, a forty-four-year-old African American program specialist at the Job Corps in the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington.

The following morning, on a sweltering July day, the trial convened in the newly air-conditioned fourth-floor courtroom of Washington’s US District Court Building. It was packed to capacity with onlookers. Many would return day after day for the duration of the trial. Also present every day was Martha Crump, Ray Crump’s mother, always accompanied by members of her church community.

The court room’s racial mix and class disparities reflected the divide between the murdered woman and the accused defendant, all interspersed with a noticeable number of unsmiling white men in impeccably tailored suits, reminding Roundtree of the significance of this case.

“So many men in gray suits showed up,” she recalled in 1991. “They were government people. I knew that. But I could never understand why so many at the time.”8

The news media was a significant presence in the courtroom. Sam Donaldson, a young broadcast news reporter for the CBS affiliate, WTOP-TV, in Washington, sat directly behind the defense team, as did two nuns. Roundtree had no idea who they were, but she recalled that at different times, both Donaldson and the nuns said something similar to her: “You’ll pull it out… ” Her response to all of them: “Well, you must know something I don’t know.”9

Indeed, Hantman’s [prosecutor Alfred Hantman] long, thundering opening statement seemed to spell doom for the defendant he said had “deliberately, willfully, and maliciously shot and killed Mary Pinchot Meyer.”10 In graphic terms, Hantman portrayed Crump in a violent struggle with the victim, insinuating, with no evidence to support his position, that the murder had been the result of a sexual assault gone awry.

Nothing about the victim, Hantman told the jury, would have attracted the attention of a thief, given that she carried no wallet and wore no jewelry.11 Crump had tried to take her by surprise from behind, Hantman maintained, but she had struggled so powerfully that he had been forced to resort to brutality — shooting her in the head to subdue her, then dragging her 25 feet while she continued to struggle, before fatally shooting her again.

An effective storyteller, Hantman captured and held the jury’s attention with his vivid portrayal of Mary Meyer on her knees, fighting for her life even with a bullet in her head, tearing the defendant’s jacket and his trouser pocket.12

United States District Court

United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Photo credit: AgnosticPreachersKid / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hantman continued in morbid detail: “We will show you that the blood stains on the tree were only two, two-and-a-half feet from the ground. We will show you that Mary Pinchot Meyer got away from the defendant. She ran back across the towpath toward the canal itself, away from the embankment; that she fell on that side of the towpath closest to the canal; that this defendant Raymond Crump, seeing the deceased getting away from him and believing that she might be able to identify him later, shot Mary Pinchot Meyer again right over the right shoulder.”13 Designed for high-impact courtroom drama upon the jury, the Hantman delivery was intended to be as brutal as it was damaging.

Next, Hantman gave the police reconstruction of Ray Crump’s alleged attempt to flee the murder scene after tow truck driver Henry Wiggins had spotted him standing over “the lifeless corpse.” The government’s prosecutor extolled the professionalism and alacrity of the police response in closing off all of the exits in the towpath area “within four minutes” of the broadcast bulletin about the murder.

Documenting that Crump was apprehended several hundred feet from the murder scene, but only after he “ran over the embankment, ran west 684 feet where he got rid of his light tan zipper jacket,” and then, “426 feet beyond that, further west, [he] got rid of his plaid cap with a bill on it,” Hantman maintained that Crump had “continued to run in a westerly direction towards Fletcher’s Landing for some 1,750 feet beyond this, at which point he saw Officer Roderick Sylvis.”

Crump had tried to escape, said Hantman, by swimming across the Potomac but realized he wouldn’t be able to do so. Detective John Warner finally apprehended Crump, who then lied about having been fishing that morning, as well as about the clothes he had been wearing. The beige Windbreaker jacket and dark-plaid golf cap would be found not far from the murder scene.14

Concluding his statement, Hantman once again implied that Crump had acted out of a premeditated intent to commit a sexual assault, thus casting the murder of Mary Meyer not a spontaneous act, but a killing in cold blood, the result of an attempted rape that had been derailed by a particularly feisty victim.

Hantman made certain the jury knew that when Crump was apprehended, the fly on his pants was open, that his pant’s pocket was torn, that he was soaking wet, that he had blood on his right hand, which was cut, and that he had a small cut or abrasion over one eye. All this could have only happened, Hantman maintained, from his struggle with Mary Meyer.

To bolster his contention that Crump’s injuries must have resulted from his struggle with Mary Meyer, Hantman concluded his presentation with Lieutenant William L. Mitchell’s statement to police the day after the murder.

Mitchell had jogged past Mary Meyer at approximately 12:20 p.m., he said, about four minutes before the first shot was fired. Two hundred yards after passing Meyer, Hantman read aloud, Mitchell had told police that he had run past a “Negro male dressed in a light tan jacket and dark corduroy trousers and wearing a dark plaid cap with a brim on it,” and who was not carrying any fishing equipment.15

The prosecutor’s opening statement left Dovey Roundtree in a kind of legal and emotional quicksand. Not only had Hantman’s recitation been convincing and thorough, he had promised the jury that his witnesses would dispel any doubt as to the defendant’s innocence, in spite of the fact that no murder weapon had been recovered. Regardless of the fact that the prosecution’s case was built entirely on circumstantial evidence, it would take a grueling, formidable effort on Dovey Roundtree’s part to rescue her client.

“I was completely overwhelmed by what he promised the jury he was going to present,” Roundtree recalled in 1992. “It sounded like a different case entirely. I was scared to death.”16

If she had been staggered — even a bit undone — by Hantman’s performance, Dovey Roundtree had not shown it. She decided to reserve her own opening statement, then implored Judge Corcoran to let the record show that Hantman’s statement had been so inflammatory, so prejudicial, that it was grounds for a mistrial. The judge declined to do so. Roundtree then insisted on seeing “the bloodstained tree” that Hantman said he would be bringing into the courtroom. The judge agreed, saying he wanted to see it, too; but already the proceedings were spiraling out of control. In an effort to maintain decorum, Judge Corcoran ordered an immediate fifteen-minute recess.

At no time was Hantman aware that Mary Meyer had kept a diary, or that she had been romantically involved with President Kennedy. Ben Bradlee was well aware of both, but he wasn’t about to reveal anything further.

The first witness to testify was Benjamin C. Bradlee, who was then the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Newsweek. “Did there come a time when you saw Mary Pinchot Meyer in death?” Hantman asked. Bradlee recounted that he had gone to the D.C. morgue on the day of the murder “sometime after six o’clock in the evening,”17 accompanied by Sergeant Sam Wallace of the DC Metropolitan Police Department, where he had identified the body of his sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer. The inference of Bradlee’s testimony was that it wasn’t until Sergeant Wallace arrived at Bradlee’s home that evening, just before 6:00 p.m., that Bradlee had any knowledge of the murder.

Strangely, Hantman never directly asked Bradlee when he had first learned of the event. Instead, he inquired whether Bradlee had, subsequent to Mary Meyer’s death, made “any effort to gain entry to this studio that was occupied by Mrs. Meyer.”

Contrary to what he would document in his 1995 memoir, Bradlee told the court that he had, in fact, entered Mary’s studio that night with no difficulty, presumably alone, never indicating whether anyone else was with him.18

At no time was Hantman aware that Mary Meyer had kept a diary, or that she had been romantically involved with President Kennedy. Ben Bradlee was well aware of both, but he wasn’t about to reveal anything further. More than 25 years later, in 1991, Hantman would remark to author Leo Damore that had he known these two facts, “it could have changed everything,” because he was “totally unaware of who Mary Meyer was or what her connections were.”19

Appearing to tread lightly, Dovey Roundtree began her first cross-examination. “Mr. Bradlee, I have just one question,” she said.

Bradlee: Yes, ma’am.

Roundtree: Do you have any personal, independent knowledge regarding the causes of the death of your sister-in-law? Do you know how she met her death? Do you know who caused it?

Bradlee: Well, I saw a bullet hole in her head.

Roundtree: Do you know who caused this to be?

Bradlee: No, I don’t.

Roundtree: You have no other information regarding the occurrences leading up to her death?

Bradlee: No, I do not.

Roundtree: Thank you, sir.20

Unaware of its far-reaching implications, Roundtree had asked the most important question surrounding the death of Mary Pinchot Meyer: “Do you have any personal, independent knowledge regarding the causes of the death of your sister-in-law?”

Ben Bradlee had withheld the fact that a group of Mary Meyer’s intimates, including Bradlee himself, had immediately conspired to commandeer Mary Meyer’s diary, letters, and personal papers — and given the entire collection to CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton.

Ben Bradlee, John F. Kennedy Jr.

Ben Bradlee playing with John F. Kennedy Jr. Atoka, Virginia, November 10, 1963. Photo credit: JFK Library

In addition, he omitted the single most important event surrounding the murder of his sister-in-law: the telephone call from his CIA friend “just after lunch” — about four hours before her identity to police had been established. The same caller, the reader will recall, had also informed Cord Meyer in New York of Mary’s demise later that afternoon — again, before her identity was known to authorities.21

During the first morning of the trial, Deputy Coroner Linwood L. Rayford testified that he had pronounced the then-unknown victim dead at the murder scene at approximately 2:05 p.m. The victim had been shot twice, he said in his testimony:

“…the first [shot] was located an inch and half anterior to the left ear…. The second [shot] was located over the right shoulder blade about six inches from the midline.” Rayford went on to delineate the path of each bullet. The first shot to the head, just anterior to the left ear and surrounded by a dark halo, traversed the skull across the floor of the brain, angling slightly from the back to the front. “In other words, going foreword from left to right, [it] struck the right side of the skull, fractured it and ricocheted back where the slug was found in the right side of the brain,” he explained.

The second bullet wound, also surrounded by a dark halo, had been fired over the victim’s right shoulder blade, traversing it and the chest cavity, perforating the right lung and severing the aorta. Hantman questioned the significance of the “two darkened halos” that surrounded each gunshot wound. “It is suggestive of powder burns,” Rayford responded. “This means that the gun was fired from rather close proximity.”22

Rayford went on to explain that the victim had “superficial lacerations to the forehead, abrasions to the forehead, to the left knee and the left ankle.” Hantman wanted the jury to know that there had been a violent struggle before and after the first shot had been fired, that Mary Meyer had fought hard, and that she had been dragged “clear across the path,” after she clung to a tree, leaving traces of her blood. Whoever the assassin was, Rayford’s detailed account made clear, he had been able to overpower the 5 foot 6 inch victim, who weighed 127 pounds, from behind.23 In the midst of the struggle, the first shot, Rayford testified, would have produced “a considerable amount of external bleeding.” The coroner’s description of the precise angles of each shot implied that the assassin was likely ambidextrous and had expertise in the surgical use of a handgun.

Mary Pinchot Meyer, Mary's Mosaic, James Jesus Angleton

Mary Pinchot Meyer (left), Mary’s Mosaic by Peter Janney (center), and James Jesus Angleton (right). Photo credit: JFK Library / Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0), Skyhorse Publishing, and National Counterintelligence Center / Wikimedia

Dr. Rayford’s testimony gave Dovey Roundtree an opportunity. In her cross examination, she asked the coroner whether “a person firing a weapon at this range would be likely to have powder marks [actual powder burns and/or the presence of nitrates] on his hands or her hands?” Rayford’s reply: “Likely, yes.”24

There had been no evidence that Ray Crump had traces of nitrates on his hands. The lack of powder burns didn’t prove Ray Crump’s innocence, however; it only proved police negligence. In their zeal to pin the murder on Crump, and in their certainty that he was the man they were looking for, the police hadn’t bothered to test his hands for traces of nitrates.

Yet no one except Dovey Roundtree seemed to question how a diminutive man such as Ray Crump, whose driver’s license at the time of his arrest listed him as “5 feet 3½ inches and 130 pounds,”25 had been able to subdue a strong, athletic woman who was taller than he was and weighed about the same. Moreover, no one in Crump’s family or community had ever seen him in possession of any firearm, much less use one with any skill or precision.

Crump, however, had in fact been weighed and measured at police headquarters on the day of the murder after his arrest. Police listed his height as 5 feet 5½ inches, weighing 145 pounds,26 but it wasn’t clear whether he was wearing his 2-inch platform heel shoes at the time, or his wet clothes. In any case, Crump’s height and weight, as well as his age — according to both his driver’s license and the police booking record — were at a considerable variance from the “stocky 5 feet eight inches to five feet 10 inches, 185 pounds Negro in his 40s, with a weight of 185 pounds,” listed on Police Form PD-251 and broadcast shortly after the murder, based on Henry Wiggins Jr.’s eyewitness account. The discrepancy would become the cornerstone for Crump’s defense.

After the lunch recess, Alfred Hantman, despite Dovey Roundtree’s objections, displayed a 55-foot-wide topographical map of the canal towpath and murder scene on the wall opposite the jury box. It was just one of fifty exhibits that Hantman would present at trial, including the bloodstained tree limb that Mary Meyer had clung to moments before she died. Such flamboyant displays by Hantman would eventually backfire, as the prosecution increasingly failed to fill the void of any real forensic evidence.

Hantman then called the map’s creator, Joseph Ronsisvalle of the National Park Service, to the witness stand. “How many exits are there from the towpath between Key Bridge and Chain Bridge?” Hantman asked him. Ronsisvalle identified four: “There are steps to Water Street at Key Bridge. There’s an underpass at Foundry Branch. There is an underpass at Fletcher’s Boat House; and there are steps at Chain Bridge.”27 Hantman asked about the distances between exits, and made a point of telling the court that within four minutes the police were guarding and closing off all four exits.

In her cross-examination of Joseph Ronsisvalle, Dovey Roundtree proved why her colleague had once called her “the world’s greatest cross-examiner.”

The many hours that Roundtree had spent combing and familiarizing herself with the towpath area were about to pay off. She not only revealed a fifth exit that Ronsisvalle had failed to mention, but also established through his testimony that there were many other places “where a person walking on foot could leave the area of the towpath without using any of the fixed exits.”28

Raymond Crump

C&O Canal Towpath and Raymond Crump Jr. being arrested October 12, 1964. Photo credit: C&O Canal NHP / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and Lets Roll Forums

Hantman became unsettled. Roundtree had raised doubts about Ronsisvalle’s knowledge of the towpath area — in fact, openly challenging his expertise.

“It would be possible, would it not, for a person to take a path which you have not indicated and which counsel, through his questions, has not asked about which you do not know; is that not true?”29 Hantman objected to her question, and Roundtree addressed Judge Corcoran: “I think that is a fair and proper question, Your Honor.” The judge agreed, overruling Hantman. According to Judge Corcoran, Roundtree was “asking about his [the witness’s] knowledge of the area. If he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know,” said Corcoran.30

The judge’s ruling helped Roundtree build the momentum she needed. She now revealed not only Ronsisvalle’s complete unfamiliarity with many of the area’s hidden exits, but also the fact that he had never himself walked along or explored the towpath, or any of the areas in question. It was a stunning revelation that undermined the prosecution’s case, in addition to Ronsisvalle’s credibility as an expert witness. Reasonable doubt was alive and well.

Before the end of the first day, the prosecution called its star eyewitness: tow truck driver Henry Wiggins Jr., who, Hantman made a point of noting, had been “a specialist in the Military Police Corps” for over three years and had “specialized training in the careful observation of people.”31 Roundtree objected to Hantman adding that detail, but Judge Corcoran allowed it.

On the witness stand, Henry Wiggins recounted having been sent by his manager, Joe Cameron, to pick up Bill Branch at the Key Bridge Esso Station, from which he proceeded to the north side of the 4300 block of Canal Road to service a stalled Nash Rambler sedan. Wiggins estimated that it was approximately 12:20 p.m. when he and Branch reached the stalled vehicle and got out of their truck. Branch, said Wiggins, went to the Rambler’s passenger side to unlock it, while Wiggins himself started to remove his tools from the truck in preparation for diagnosing and fixing the stalled vehicle.32

As soon as Wiggins was out of the truck, however, he heard “some screams…. It sounded like a woman screaming.” He said that the screams lasted “about 20 seconds… coming from the direction of the canal.”33

When the screaming stopped, Wiggins testified, he “heard a shot,” again coming from the direction of the canal. In response, he “ran diagonally across the road” toward the three-foot wall overlooking both the canal and the towpath on the southern side of the canal. In the midst of crossing Canal Road, Wiggins explained, he heard “another shot just as I was reaching the wall of the canal.”

Hantman asked “how much of a time interval” had elapsed between the first and second shot, and Wiggins testified that it was only “a few seconds.”34 (His partner, Bill Branch, would later testify he thought it was closer to ten seconds).

Peering over the wall, Wiggins testified that he observed “a man standing over a woman lying on the towpath. The man was standing behind the body, facing my direction. The man’s head, was bent down a little; he wasn’t crouched. He was standing.”

Hantman wanted to know how much time had elapsed between Wiggins hearing the second shot and his seeing the man. “Just a fraction of a second,” Wiggins testified. Hantman then asked what time of day it was when he had seen the man. In his testimony, Wiggins couldn’t say for certain. “It was around 12:20 p.m., somewhere around there; it may have been later,” he said.35

Henry Wiggins was certain about one point in particular: he had had a clear, unobstructed view of the man standing over the dead woman at a distance of 128.6 feet.36 He told the court that the man had “looked up towards the wall of the canal where I was standing.”37

Hantman: Were you looking directly at him at that point?

Wiggins: I was looking at him.

Hantman: Then what happened?

Wiggins: I ducked down behind the wall at that time, not too long, and I came back up from behind the wall to see him turning around and shoving something in his pocket.

Hantman: Where was he holding this something that you speak of?

Wiggins: He was holding it in his right hand.

Hantman: Could you tell what the object was?

Wiggins: No, sir, I couldn’t.

Hantman: Could you tell us whether it was light or dark or what particular color it was?

Wiggins: It was dark, I believe, some kind of hand object.

Hantman: And he put this hand object where, sir?

Wiggins: Into his right jacket pocket.

Hantman: After this individual put this dark object into right jacket pocket, what did you see him do?

Wiggins: [He] Just turned around and walked over straight away from the body, down over the hill.38

Next, Hantman asked Wiggins to describe what the man in question had been wearing. Wiggins recalled that the man wore a cap “that buttons onto the brim,” with a light-colored jacket, dark trousers, and dark shoes, all of which the prosecution contended that Ray Crump had been wearing that day. Hantman introduced each article of clothing as government exhibits. The clothes did, in fact, belong to Ray Crump, who had been seen wearing them as he left his home the morning of the murder.

But according to Wiggins, he had only seen the man standing over the body for “around a minute,” and he “didn’t get a very good look at his face.” He qualified this last detail by adding, “but I did get a glance at it.” Hantman asked Wiggins to state the race of the man he had seen. “He was colored,” Wiggins replied. “I think I would estimate his weight around 185 or 180. He was medium build.”

“Were you able to determine how tall he was?” Hantman asked. “Well, I couldn’t make an exact estimate to that,” Wiggins responded.39

Dovey Roundtree would soon seize upon Wiggins’s uncertainty. Hadn’t the prosecution vaunted Wiggins’s training “in the careful observation of people”?

The following morning, the prosecution’s star witness would squander his credibility in less than an hour. Hantman needed Wiggins to identify the clothes Ray Crump was wearing on the day of the murder, and confirm the exhibited items. Roundtree knew where he was heading and objected. Judge Corcoran sustained her objection, saying, “I don’t see how he [Wiggins] can say it was [Crump’s actual clothing] unless he walked up to the defendant and took it off of him.” His one concession to the prosecution was to “allow lookalike testimony” only.40

Hantman became irritated. “I don’t see how the Court could strike it if that is the witness’s testimony.” Judge Corcoran’s response was sharp and unequivocal: “If that is his testimony, it is subject to challenge.”41

The irritation was mutual. That Hantman had been, for the second day, engaged in loud gum-chewing did not endear him to the judge. In fact, Judge Corcoran had taken his young clerk, Robert Bennett, into his chambers during one earlier recess and had admonished him “never to chew gum” when presenting in a courtroom.42

In spite of the fracas with the judge, Hantman pressed on with Wiggins, who appeared not to comprehend the significance of the exchange over the admissibility of his testimony about the clothing.

Hantman: All right. Now, when did you first see these articles of clothing?

Wiggins: I first saw these articles when they were being worn by the defendant when he was standing over the victim at the scene.

Hantman: According to your best recollection, Mr. Wiggins, are these the same ones or do they look like the articles you saw on the man bending over the body of Mary Pinchot Meyer?

Wiggins: They are the same articles which I saw.43

Again, the exchange was not lost on the defense. Wiggins had unintentionally started to dig his own grave. Dovey Roundtree would merely give him a bigger shovel to dig deeper.

Roundtree: Do you remember, Mr. Witness, that you also said you had only a glimpse of the person you saw at the scene?

Wiggins: I remember that.

Roundtree: This morning nevertheless, Mr. Witness, you are prepared to tell this court and this jury that these are the pants?

Wiggins: That’s right.

Roundtree: Positively?

Wiggins: Positive.

Roundtree: You are prepared to say that this is the cap?

Wiggins: That is the cap.

Roundtree: And that these are the black shoes?

Wiggins: That is right.

Roundtree: And that this is the jacket?

Wiggins: That is right.44

Wiggins had already identified Ray Crump as the man he saw standing over the victim. Roundtree used this opportunity to highlight the discrepancy between what Wiggins had reported to the police and the actual size of the defendant.

Roundtree: Would that, then, be an accurate estimate of what you saw, the man you saw weighed 185 and was five feet eight?

Wiggins: That wouldn’t be an accurate estimate, no, ma’am.

Roundtree turned to face the jury.

Roundtree: Well, now, are you telling us you gave them [the police] information which was not accurate?

Wiggins: Well, this information which I gave them at that time which I was looking across the canal down on the subject there, would not be very accurate but as close as I can give. I give it to them as close as I could remember.

Roundtree: And you gave them, though, what you thought you saw from across the canal?

Wiggins: I tried to do my best.

Roundtree: All right. A hundred eighty-five pounds; five feet eight.

Wiggins: That’s right.45

If Wiggins was beginning to squirm, the increasingly exasperated, gum chewing Hantman had to have been agitated. His star eyewitness, and his case,were crumbling on the second day of the trial. During his redirect, Hantman asked Wiggins again whether his view of the murder scene had been obstructed in any way. Wiggins reiterated that nothing had blocked his view. Yet Wiggins had contradicted his own testimony.

Hantman had opened a problematic door. Dovey Roundtree merely walked Wiggins through it. Seeking to bolster Wiggins’s credibility regarding Crump’s clothing, Hantman had attempted something similar with Wiggins’s description of the suspect’s height and weight — both of which in no way matched Crump’s.

Inadvertently, Hantman had damaged the credibility of his star eyewitness so badly that his case would never recover. The description Wiggins had given police just minutes after the murder took place — “five feet eight, medium build, 185 pounds” — would be reiterated by nearly every one of the twelve policemen and detectives called to testify at the trial, except for two who remembered the height as “five feet 10 inches.”

With nearly each of the prosecution’s 27 witnesses, Dovey Roundtree would become a heat-seeking missile: If there was a weakness or discrepancy to be exploited, she would find it and expose it to the jury.

This was the description, they all testified, of the man they were told to look for, and it didn’t come close to describing the defendant. Ray Crump shared just one physical feature with the man described on the police radio broadcast on the day of the murder: He was black.

By mid morning of day two, the defense strategy of reasonable doubt had started a crusade. With nearly each of the prosecution’s 27 witnesses, Dovey Roundtree would become a heat-seeking missile: If there was a weakness or discrepancy to be exploited, she would find it and expose it to the jury.

Bill Branch, Henry Wiggins’s tow truck assistant on the day of the murder, took the stand right after Wiggins. Branch had told police that after Wiggins left the murder scene to call police, he, Branch, was too afraid to keep watch over the wall that overlooked the canal towpath. Instead, he sat in the stalled Nash Rambler and waited. Yet on the witness stand, he testified that he had remained at the wall overlooking the murder scene until Wiggins returned with police. Roundtree confronted Branch with the report he had given to police:

“I [Bill Branch] didn’t see anyone around her [the murder victim] at that time, I went back to the car.”46 His tail now between his legs, Branch finally took refuge in a convenient loss of memory — “I don’t remember.”47

It now appeared that Hantman, who had painstakingly rehearsed and written out the testimony of each of his 27 witnesses,48 had coached Branch to alter his statement to police. Surely, Hantman was aware of Branch’s written police statement — that he had stayed in the car, and not remained at the wall overlooking the towpath.

C&O Canal, police officer

Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Elvert Barnes / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Jeremy Riel / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

In addition to exposing Branch’s charade, Roundtree had also managed to reveal one very important fact: Between the time that Wiggins had left and returned with the police, no one had been monitoring the murder scene.

After the day two lunch recess, the trial proceeded with the testimony of two police officers, patrolman Roderick Sylvis and Detective John Warner. A puzzling question had now been pushed to the foreground: if the man Henry Wiggins had seen standing over the corpse of Mary Meyer wasn’t Ray Crump, then who was it? Together, the testimony of Roderick Sylvis and John Warner would reveal one of the most important facts never before understood: Someone else was eluding capture by police.

Hearing the police radio broadcast at 12:26 p.m., police officer Roderick Sylvis and his partner, Frank Bignotti, sped to Fletcher’s Boat House to close off the exit.49 They arrived, Sylvis told Hantman, at “12:30 p.m. or 12:29 p.m.,” having driven their patrol car through the narrow underpass beneath the canal itself. Now facing north, with the towpath and canal in full view and the shore of the Potomac River behind them, they waited for “about four or five minutes.”50

Anyone attempting to leave the entire C & O Canal towpath area would either have to walk through the narrow underpass or cross the canal in an old leaky rowboat that was attached to a rope and pulley on each side of the canal. In fact, that meant there were two exits at Fletcher’s Landing — two entirely different ways to exit the area — that offered immediate access to Canal Road and beyond.51

After waiting “about four or five minutes,” no longer content, the two officers hatched a plan: Sylvis would walk along the towpath toward the murder scene, while Bignotti would walk through the woods adjacent to the railroad tracks parallel to the towpath, both heading east toward the murder scene.

Leaving the entire Fletcher’s Boat House area unattended, they risked allowing the killer to walk out unnoticed. Yet even that oversight paled to what was about to unfold, positioning themselves for their eastward trek toward the murder scene. As soon as they started out, “maybe 50 feet at the most” from Fletcher’s Boat House, Sylvis testified, they spotted a young white couple walking westward on the railroad tracks.

The two officers approached the couple, informing them “that there had been a shooting on the canal.” Sylvis inquired as to whether they had seen anyone leaving the area. “They did not observe anyone,” Sylvis recalled during his testimony.52

How long had the interrogation of the couple taken? The question had not been asked during his testimony. However, reviewing his testimony in an interview for this book in 2008, Sylvis was adamant that he had asked the young white couple a number of questions, and it had taken “at least five minutes, probably more.”53

That meant the time had to be approaching 1:00 p.m. before the two policemen began bushwhacking their way eastward toward the murder scene, a measured distance of 1.6 miles away. “I remember I proceeded very cautiously,” Sylvis recalled, adding that he had been “taking a lot of time to be observant.”54

Fletcher’s Boat House, C&O Canal Towpath

Fletcher’s Boat House inset over Google map of C&O Canal towpath. Photo credit: Josh / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0) and Google Maps

Walking slowly and vigilantly for “approximately a mile east on the towpath,” Sylvis told the court, he observed “a head jut out of the woods momentarily, just for a second, and went back. A head of a man, somebody stuck their head out of the woods, and were looking up at me, and pulled back again.”

From a distance of “about 150 or 160 feet,” Sylvis identified the head to be that of a “Negro male.” He didn’t remember the man wearing a cap of any kind.55 Sylvis then “proceeded very slowly towards the spot,” sure the man had seen him. He yelled to his partner Bignotti for assistance, but Bignotti didn’t respond, so Sylvis tried to “wave down someone on Canal Road” to assist him.

That meant that it took him even longer to arrive at the spot where the “Negro male” had peeked out from the woods.56

It wasn’t clear whether Dovey Roundtree, or even the jury, had grasped the full implications of Detective John Warner’s testimony, which was simply this: Ray Crump was not the only black man in the towpath area on the day of the murder.

How long had it actually taken officer Sylvis to walk “approximately a mile” before he saw the head of a “Negro male” jut out of the woods? Conservatively, it had to have been at least fifteen minutes or more. During his testimony, Sylvis told Hantman that it took him “approximately 10 or 15 minutes” additionally to reconnect with his partner after he had seen the mystery “Negro male.”

Reunited, Sylvis and Bignotti spent even more time searching the area together. “We stayed there for a few more minutes and looked around the area where I had seen the head, and then proceeded on back toward Fletcher’s [Boat House],” testified Sylvis.57

Hantman: Approximately what time was it when you saw this unidentified person about a mile down the towpath?

Sylvis: I’d say about ten or fifteen minutes. Let me see — it would be about, about 1:45 or 1:50 [p.m.].58

Officer Roderick Sylvis’s answer to Hantman’s inquiry was very likely accurate. The problem, however, was that he had blown the answer he had rehearsed with Hantman, and Hantman knew it.

At this very moment, the government’s case against Ray Crump was in peril, and about to be pushed off the edge of a cliff. Why? Because it had already been established during the trial that Ray Crump had been arrested at 1:15 p.m. In fact, Crump had been in the company of Detective John Warner at a location of one-tenth of a mile east of the murder scene for a period of at least ten to fifteen minutes — before he was arrested at 1:15 p.m. The significance of this detail was that the “head” of the “Negro male” seen by patrolman Roderick Sylvis could not have been Ray Crump’s.

Hantman, apparently aware he was standing in quicksand, tried another tactic: He asked Sylvis another rehearsed question.

Hantman: All right, sir. How long, all told, do you recollect your scout car was in the vicinity of Fletcher’s Boat House that day?

Sylvis: I’d say about forty-five minutes.59

Forty-five minutes. This was the answer that appeared to lift Hantman out of the jam. If Sylvis and Bignotti arrived at Fletcher’s Boat House at approximately 12:30 p.m. and they returned to their patrol car by 1:15, they came back just in time to conveniently hear the police radio broadcast that a suspect had been arrested.

But there was just one problem with this version of events: There were no police radios at the crime scene or adjacent to the site of Crump’s arrest. Someone would have had to walk back to a police vehicle at the Foundry Underpass to make the call, but no such call — if one ever took place — was ever mentioned in the trial transcript or any police report. Dovey Roundtree seized on the discrepancy in patrolman’s Roderick Sylvis’s testimony in her cross-examination:

Roundtree: Mr. Witness, do you know what time the defendant, Ray Crump was arrested?

Sylvis: I know it was approximately 1:15 when it came over the air.

Roundtree: Now, then, 30 minutes after that time you saw a man stick his head out?

Sylvis: Pardon?

Roundtree: Thirty minutes after Ray Crump, Jr. has already been arrested, you saw an unidentified Negro male stick his head out of the woods?60

Hantman immediately objected, stating that what Roundtree had alleged had not been Sylvis’s testimony, in spite of the fact that it had been. This may have been one of the few moments during the trial where Dovey Roundtree missed a significant opportunity. Why didn’t she ask Judge Corcoran to have the stenographer read back Sylvis’s testimony, confirming that Sylvis had just testified that it had been “1:45 or 1:50 [p.m.]” when he saw the mystery “Negro male”?

Sylvis, for his part, must have realized that he had been “off message,” because in the next instant he corrected his testimony and said that he first saw the head of the man poking out of the woods at “approximately 12:45 [p.m.].”61

That would have been physically impossible. Having already testified that he had arrived at Fletcher’s Boathouse at “12:30 p.m. or 12:29 p.m.,”62 then waited “about four or five minutes,” before deciding on a plan with his partner, only to then spend “at least five minutes, probably more” interrogating the young white couple before beginning to vigilantly walk “a mile east on the towpath,” Sylvis would have had to have been a world-class runner to spot the mystery “Negro male” man at 12:45 p.m.

It was, in fact, accurate that about an hour later, “about 1:45 [p.m.] or 1:50 [p.m.],” — Sylvis’s initial response to Hantman — that he spotted the head of the mystery “Negro male,” who could not have possibly been Ray Crump.

When Roundtree confronted Sylvis with the discrepancy, he had to have realized that by first telling the court that it was 1:45 p.m. when he saw the “Negro male,” he had risked sabotaging the prosecution’s case against Crump. Sylvis now wanted the court to believe that it had occurred at 12:45.

But his initial answer to Hantman’s inquiry of “about 1:45 or 1:50 [p.m.]” was the correct answer, and he confirmed that with me in 2008.63 Crump, it will be shown, was already in the custody of Detective John Warner east of the murder scene as early as 1:00, which could only mean there was a second “Negro male” on the towpath that day and that he had eluded capture — as well as the attention of the court proceedings.

Indeed, a cornerstone of the prosecution’s case was that the man Sylvis had spotted was, in fact, the fleeing Ray Crump. Prosecutor Hantman hammered that point home repeatedly throughout the trial. Should that assertion be successfully challenged, the case against Crump would crumble. That was about to happen, although it would again elude the scrutiny of the defense and remain hidden in the trial transcript until now.

Detective John Warner, scheduled to testify after Sylvis, had not been in the courtroom during Sylvis’s testimony. It was customary to keep witnesses from hearing other testimony in order to reduce the possibility of collusion and fabrication. Warner was therefore unaware of the various conflicting timestamps that had jeopardized the prosecution’s case.

Warner testified that he had arrived at the Key Bridge entrance of the canal towpath at 12:29 p.m. with his partner, Henry Schultheis. They waited there until 12:40, he said, at which point Warner decided he “was going to cover the area between the railroad tracks and the towpath in the wooded area,” while his partner would cover “the area to the left of the railroad tracks to the [Potomac] river bank.”64

C&O Canal, Towpath

C&O Canal from Francis Scott Key Bridge, Georgetown, Washington, DC. Photo credit: cp_thornton / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Warner proceeded to walk westward toward the murder scene through the woods adjacent to the railroad tracks for what he estimated had been “forty five minutes” before discovering the wet, somewhat disoriented Ray Crump more than one-tenth of a mile east of the murder scene itself.65

If Warner’s recollection was accurate, he would have come across Crump at approximately 1:25, ten minutes later than the official time stamp of Crump’s arrest at approximately 1:15.

Under direct examination by Hantman, Warner proceeded to alter his testimony, saying that it had been 1:15 p.m. when he first saw Crump at a location one-tenth of a mile east of the murder scene. Hantman appeared to be irritated with Warner for not following the script, so Warner, under cross-examination by Roundtree, eventually changed his testimony again to 1:14 p.m.

(In their testimony during the trial, several detectives and police officers had already established that Detective Bernie Crooke had arrested Ray Crump on the railroad bed directly below the murder scene at approximately 1:15 p.m.)

The government’s case was slowly spiraling out of control, yet the Roundtree defense team appeared to be missing another critical moment. Detective John Warner’s testimony was undermining the prosecution’s case. Warner told Hantman that he stopped Crump on the railroad tracks and identified himself as a police officer, and Crump took out his sodden wallet and handed over his D.C. driver’s license. Crump, Warner testified, hadn’t been running when he discovered him; “he was walking.”66

Warner had looked at the name and photograph on the license to confirm Crump’s identity. He hadn’t needed to read the physical description — five feet three and one-half inches and 130 pounds — to realize that Crump wasn’t a match for the general broadcast, which had put the height of the suspect, according to Warner, at five feet 10 inches, though he wanted to maintain during the trial that he hadn’t noticed Crump’s physical description on his license. In the unlikely event that that were true, why wouldn’t he have arrested Crump immediately?

Hantman: Did you at any time say anything to him or did he say anything to you?

Warner: Yes, sir. I identified myself as a police officer. I asked him who he was, and he replied, “Ray Crump.” He took his wallet out, and when he took his wallet out, water dripped out of his wallet as he handed me his D.C. driver’s license. I asked him then if he had heard any pistol shots. He replied no. I said, “How did you get so wet?” He says, “Well, I was fishing from a rock, and I fell into the river and went to sleep, fell off the rock, fell into the river.” I said, “Well, where is your fishing equipment?” He said it went into the river, too. I said, “Your rod and everything?” He said yes. I said, “Well, where are your fish?” He said they went into the river too. I said, “Who were you fishing with?” He said, “No one.” I asked him then if he would point out the spot as to where he was fishing from, I would help him, see if I could retrieve his fishing gear for him. And he says, “Yes, sir.” And he led us back up in a westerly direction, up the railroad tracks.

Hantman: About what time was this when you first saw the defendant standing 32 feet in front of you soaking wet?

Warner: This was 1:15 p.m., sir.

Hantman: 1:15?

Warner: p.m., sir.67

Warner was asking an entire courtroom to believe that in the space of literally no time at all, he had spotted Crump, who “was walking,” at “1:15 p.m.” and at a distance that would be measured to be 532 feet east of the murder scene,68 whereupon he proceeded to ask Crump a series of seven questions, with Crump giving his answer to each question, before the two then began to walk along the railroad tracks in the westerly direction toward where Crump said he had been fishing — only to then find themselves one-tenth of a mile later (532 feet) immediately parallel and below the murder scene, where Crump was supposedly interrogated and arrested at 1:15 p.m. by Detective Bernie Crooke.

Warner’s testimony was as ludicrous as it was dishonest. Under cross-examination, he changed the time when he first came upon Ray Crump; it was now “1:14 [p.m.],”69 an obvious attempt to reconcile with what previous police testimony had officially established as Crump’s time of arrest of 1:15 p.m.

This incensed Dovey Roundtree, who discerned in Warner’s conflicting testimony further evidence of prosecutorial shenanigans. Yet in spite of a second demand for a mistrial — a demand Judge Corcoran rejected — it wasn’t clear whether Dovey Roundtree, or even the jury, had grasped the full implications of Detective John Warner’s testimony, which was simply this: Ray Crump was not the only black man in the towpath area on the day of the murder.

Detective Warner had clearly first come upon the defendant well before 1:15 p.m. and at a distance of more than a tenth of a mile east of the murder scene. His methodical, seven-question interrogation of Crump, followed by their walk together, had to have taken at least ten, maybe even as long as fifteen, minutes before the two eventually found themselves parallel to, and beneath the murder scene, the place where Crump would be, by all accounts, officially arrested at approximately 1:15 p.m.

If Crump was in the physical presence of Detective Warner at a distance of a tenth of a mile east of the murder scene sometime around 1:00 p.m., he could not have possibly been the same “Negro male” that officer Roderick Sylvis spotted approximately six-tenths of a mile west of the murder scene well past 1:00 p.m. Detective Warner’s testimony had, therefore, inadvertently corroborated the fact that a second, unidentified “Negro male” had eluded police capture.

More policemen were called to testify the following day. Collectively, their testimony offered nothing in the way of incriminating evidence against Crump and, instead, expanded the grounds for reasonable doubt. A neighbor of Crump’s testified that she saw Ray leaving his house the morning of the murder wearing his light-colored beige jacket and golf cap. In fact, some facsimile of a light-beige Windbreaker jacket — seen by eyewitnesses Henry Wiggins and allegedly by Lieutenant William L. Mitchell on the “Negro male” each of them saw — was the most conspicuous evidence that, according to the prosecution, identified the killer. For Henry Wiggins in particular, it had been the distinguishing piece of clothing, and it was a jacket very similar to the prosecution’s exhibit that lay before the court. So important was the jacket as evidence, its very existence — including its location and whereabouts — seemed to have a life of its own.

The implication of Byers’s testimony is inescapable: Someone, other than police, was monitoring the murder scene and the events unfolding around it.

And so, before the end of day three of the trial, a fascinating element — its real significance never realized during the trial, or afterward — was revealed. It involved possibly the most critical piece of evidence: the light-colored beige windbreaker jacket, allegedly worn by the defendant.

Harbor Precinct policeman Frederick Byers was called to testify. Under direct and cross-examination, Byers was adamant: He had received a radio call at “about one o’clock or a little after” to search in his patrol boat for a “light colored beige jacket,” which he would eventually find at “about 1:46 p.m.” at a distance of 1,110 feet southwest of the murder scene.70

How did he know where to look? Moreover, neither the defense nor the prosecution questioned the time — “about one o’clock” — that Byers asserted he received the call, nor why he had been asked only to search for a jacket, and not a golf cap. (The cap, the reader will recall, was found the day after the murder on the Potomac River shoreline, 684 feet from the murder scene.)

If the prosecution wanted to maintain that Crump wasn’t arrested, by all accounts, until 1:15 p.m., how did police know to start looking for a jacket at “approximately one o’clock”? That was very possibly before Crump had even been spotted by any police officer, much less apprehended, and before Henry Wiggins identified Crump, subsequent to his arrest at 1:15 p.m., as the man he had seen standing over the victim wearing a jacket and cap.

Detective Warner, by all accounts the first police officer to encounter Ray Crump, had likely done so in the vicinity of 1:00 p.m., but he had had no means of communication with any other police officer until Sergeant Pasquale D’Ambrosio spotted him with Crump right before 1:15 p.m.

D’Ambrosio had first arrived at the murder scene at 12:35 p.m. The Chief Detective, Lieutenant Arthur Weber, also the ranking homicide officer, and detectives Crooke and Coppage arrived at the murder scene at approximately 1:00 p.m.71 There were no portable police radios at the crime scene. If there had been, Henry Wiggins and patrolman James Scouloukas would not have had to return to the police cruiser parked at the Foundry Underpass to call in a radio broadcast description of the killer.

The implication of Byers’s testimony is inescapable: Someone, other than police, was monitoring the murder scene and the events unfolding around it.

And it appears that someone, other than police, who had access to police band radio frequencies radioed Byers and gave him instructions to start looking for the jacket, and told him where to look for it. Whoever the caller was, he had to have known that Crump was no longer wearing his jacket before he was first spotted by Warner (somewhere in the vicinity of 1:00 p.m.) and subsequently arrested by Detective Crooke at approximately 1:15 p.m.

When the trial recessed for a three-day weekend on Thursday, July 22, Dovey Roundtree was still holding her own; her strategy of establishing reasonable doubt at almost every juncture was bearing fruit. Before the recess, Roundtree again focused the jury’s attention on the description Henry Wiggins had given police of the man he saw standing over the body: five feet eight inches, weighing 185 pounds.

In her cross-examination of Chief Detective Arthur Weber, a 23-year veteran and the ranking officer of the D.C. Homicide Squad in charge of the investigation, attorney Roundtree further highlighted this discrepancy:

Weber: We were looking for — to the best of my recollection — a Negro who had on a light-colored jacket and a dark cap.

Roundtree: Did that lookout not also include the fact that he weighed 185 pounds?

Weber: From my recollection that I remember from the [PD-251] lookout, I had — one of my ways of doing this — I had a picture in my mind of a stocky individual.

Roundtree: Did that not include also the fact that the lookout indicated he was about five feet eight or ten inches?

Weber: In my mind, yes.72

The chief detective’s admission underscored the defense’s position that the man Wiggins had seen could not have been the defendant, Ray Crump. That this came from the most senior ranking police officer at the murder scene, the man in charge of the entire investigation, would not be lost on the jury. But there was still one eyewitness left to testify, and that individual was potentially lethal to the defense.

The White Lieutenant Takes the Stand

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The lean, trim William L. Mitchell took the witness stand the afternoon of Monday, July 26. The reader will recall that Mitchell, an Army lieutenant stationed at the Pentagon in the fall of 1964, claimed to have been out for his daily lunchtime run on the towpath the day of the murder. He had come forward to police, he said, because he recognized the victim from newspaper accounts, and believed she was being followed by a “Negro male,” who was wearing clothes identical to those Henry Wiggins had seen. Mitchell gave the same address he had given to police nine months earlier: 1500 Arlington Boulevard, in Arlington, Virginia, an apartment complex known at the time as the Virginian.73

The presence of Lieutenant William L. Mitchell had troubled Dovey Roundtree from the very beginning. What else, Roundtree wondered, might Mitchell add to the information he’d already given? How might he elaborate on what he’d told police the day after the murder? Mitchell had refused to return her phone calls in the months before the trial; she had little to go on.

But whatever he said, whatever claims he might make in his testimony, she feared the jury was certain to believe him, simply because he appeared to be the quintessence of credibility: educated, a retired military officer, and white.

At a murder trial where the innuendo of an attempted sexual assault by a black man upon a white woman had captivated the attention of an entire city, William L. Mitchell indeed presented a formidable threat.

Might the jury even go so far as to overlook the discrepancy in Wiggins’s height and weight testimony, given Mitchell’s corroboration to police of the clothing description that was nearly identical to what Wiggins had seen? Potentially, this spelled doom for Ray Crump, Roundtree told Leo Damore years later, because Ray had lied on two important counts: his clothing, and his reason for being in the area on the day of the murder. Without testimony from Crump’s girlfriend, Vivian, Roundtree still feared the possibility of ruination for her client.

As a witness for the prosecution, Mitchell was a cool customer. He didn’t fall into the same traps that had tripped up Henry Wiggins. When asked by Hantman to identify the exhibits of Crump’s and Mary Meyer’s clothing, Mitchell made certain to say only that they were “similar to the clothes worn by the individual,” not the exact clothes he had seen that day.

He described the “Negro male” he had seen following Mary as “about my height, about five feet eight [inches],”74 and then added that he, Mitchell, weighed “about 145 pounds.” The reader will recall that this was the precise weight that police recorded for Crump after his arrest on the day of the murder.75

Mitchell was careful to stop short of saying that Ray Crump was the man he had seen. Doing so would have invited a fierce cross-examination from Roundtree, which might have aroused suspicion and damaged Mitchell’s testimony. Instead, Mitchell slyly and repeatedly implied that the man he’d seen was indeed Crump. The man he saw, he told the court, “had his hands in the pockets of his jacket when I passed him.” He carried “no fishing rod.”76

Hantman asked Mitchell if he had seen anyone else on the towpath the day. Mitchell testified that he had twice passed “a couple walking together,” as well as a younger runner — “about 20” — wearing Bermuda shorts.77 The runner in Bermuda shorts was never identified, and he never came forward.

Patrolman Sylvis had already testified about seeing the couple, a point that corroborated Mitchell’s account, bolstering his credibility, but Sylvis had obtained no identification and the couple never came forward to police. Aside from his own claim, no one ever substantiated that Mitchell had been on the towpath that day, or any other day.

In spite of Mitchell’s calm demeanor, Roundtree probed for weak spots in his testimony, in which Mitchell reported with military precision his time on the towpath, and approximately when and where he was located at each of several critical points on the line of the murder.

Roundtree focused on another detail that would undermine Mitchell’s well-rehearsed precision: Had he been wearing a watch? Mitchell was forced to concede that he hadn’t; he couldn’t be entirely certain that the times he gave were exact. He admitted that he had based his accounting of the time he returned to the Pentagon on the “clock in the barbershop of the [Pentagon] basement athletic center,” which read “a quarter of one.” It was a small but significant detail, again establishing a degree of reasonable doubt about Mitchell’s account.

Yet Mitchell’s assertion that the man he passed weighed “about 145 pounds” was troubling to the defense. It was too close for comfort, in spite of Mitchell’s claim that the man he had seen was “about my height, about five feet eight [inches],” clearly taller than Ray Crump.

The weight match wouldn’t be lost on Hantman, who would exploit it for all it was worth, along with one other detail, in his summation. At the end of his testimony, William Mitchell’s sheen was still untarnished; he remained a model citizen, and he had delivered precise eyewitness testimony that corroborated the less-than-stellar witness Henry Wiggins, thereby indirectly and ironically resuscitating the Wiggins testimony.

At that point in the proceedings, in the eyes of the jury, it may have still been anyone’s case to win.

No Evidence

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The following day, the prosecution called its final witnesses. Agent Warren Johnson, an FBI firearms expert, told Hantman there were no powder burns or nitrates on Crump’s hands or clothing because he had been in the water that day.

Roundtree, however, had already established that the police had never tested Ray Crump, or his clothing, for the presence of nitrates. Moreover, she confronted Johnson with the fact that the standard paraffin test for nitrates in gunpowder typically involves the suspect being asked to wash his hands repeatedly throughout the testing procedure.

.38 caliber revolver

The .38 caliber revolver used in the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer was never found. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Bidgee / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 AU)

If a suspect had fired a gun recently, the presence of nitrates would still show up. Since there had been no nitrates discovered on Crump’s clothing or on any part of his body, she argued, there wasn’t any evidence he had fired a firearm that day.

Agent Johnson’s testimony did confirm — and underscore — that whoever killed Mary Meyer had shot her from close range and was likely highly skilled, possibly ambidextrous, in the handling of a .38-caliber revolver. In describing the shots, Johnson had corroborated Deputy Coroner Rayford’s testimony about which hand had fired which shot.78

Next, Special Agent Paul Stombaugh, of the FBI’s crime lab, testified that in 21 out of 22 characteristics, Ray Crump’s hair sample was a match for a single hair found inside the golf cap recovered the day after the murder. This forensic analysis, he maintained, linked both the jacket and cap to the defendant. The cap and jacket on exhibit did belong to Ray Crump, but the hair match wasn’t evidence that he was guilty of murder.

In her cross-examination of Stombaugh, Roundtree called into question the entire field of hair and fiber analysis. In preparation for the cross-examination, she had read a number of textbooks, a dozen of which were stacked on the defense table. Stombaugh wasn’t able to answer questions about the latest literature in the field, because he hadn’t read it. He was also unfamiliar with a University of Pennsylvania study Roundtree cited, showing that hair and fiber analysis was far from an exact science.

She then compelled Stombaugh to admit that he had never published anything in the field and that he was not, in fact, an expert. But the witness attempted to fight back. He explained that his FBI laboratory relied heavily upon something called neutron activation in analyzing hair and fiber samples.

“There is a great controversy raging right now,” Stombaugh testified, and “this field [neutron activation] hasn’t been perfected yet to the point where we can positively identify a hair of some particular person through this method.”79

That admission inadvertently succeeded in making Roundtree’s case for her. In the end, Stombaugh’s testimony dealt more than one blow to the prosecution.

The FBI’s state-of-the-art forensic laboratory in Washington, DC, had failed to find any forensic evidence — hair, clothing fibers, blood, semen, skin, urine, or saliva — that linked Ray Crump to either the murder scene or the body and clothing of Mary Meyer.

Similarly, there had been no traces of Mary Meyer’s blood, hair, fibers, or saliva found on Ray Crump. If the first gunshot had produced a wound that, according to Dr. Rayford, very likely spurted blood, wouldn’t Mary Meyer’s assailant be covered in it? Even if the killer had jumped into the Potomac River in an attempt to flee, it was unlikely that all traces of the victim’s hair, blood, saliva, or clothing fibers would have been completely washed out of his clothes or body. But absolutely nothing had been found on the body, or clothes, of Ray Crump.

FBI Laboratory

Police officer delivers evidence to the FBI Laboratory. Photo credit: FBI

In his description of the man he had seen standing over the dead woman’s body, Henry Wiggins had made no mention of any stains, blood or anything else, on the man’s light-colored jacket. Given the intensity of the skirmish and the fight that Mary Meyer had put up, as well as the amount of blood that likely squirted from her head wound, the assailant would probably have been covered with blood stains easily visible on a light-colored, zipped-up beige jacket, even from a distance of 128.6 feet.

Furthermore, the man’s golf cap was in place, not askew, only seconds after the fatal second shot. In the immediate aftermath, the man Wiggins saw exhibited no signs of having been in a violent struggle.

After calling 27 witnesses and introducing more than 50 exhibits, the prosecution rested its case at the end of the day on Tuesday, July 27. The next morning, Dovey Roundtree delivered her opening statement on behalf of her client. In five full days of testimony, she stated, the government hadn’t produced a shred of forensic evidence linking Ray Crump to either the murder scene or the body of Mary Meyer. There was no proof that Crump had handled or fired a gun the day of the murder, and no firearm had been produced.

Roundtree maintained that the testimony of Henry Wiggins was flawed: The man he saw, described as five feet eight inches tall and 185 pounds, could not have been the defendant, Ray Crump.

The defense’s strategy was simple and effective: Three character witnesses testified for the defendant, the last of whom was Crump’s pastor at the Second Baptist Church in Southwest Washington. Each witness stated that he or she had known Ray in his church and community for more than 15 years, and testified to his good character.

Over the preceding weekend, Dovey had discussed with her defense colleagues, George Knox and Alan Robeson, the possibility of putting Ray Crump on the stand. She thought that doing so would persuade the jury, once and for all, that the shy, meek, harmless man was incapable of such a crime. But Knox and Robinson were against it. Why jeopardize, they argued, the fact that the government had been unable to prove its case? Roundtree listened, unconvinced.

Fateful Encounter on an Elevator

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On Monday, she rode the elevator to the courtroom. The elevator operator, a black woman, took her aside and told her that earlier in the morning the men from the all-white prosecution team had been chortling in the elevator about looking forward to destroying Ray Crump on the witness stand.80 The moment changed everything; Providence had given her a sign. The prospect of her helpless defendant being metaphorically lynched in open court was too big a risk.

As Crump’s last character witness left the stand, Roundtree stunned the prosecution by announcing that the defense would rest its case. She would call no further witnesses. She then told Judge Corcoran that she wished to renew a number of motions, including an immediate judgment of acquittal. Barring that, she wished to renew her motion for a mistrial. It was a bold, deliberate move that caught everyone off guard.

Judge Corcoran denied each of Roundtree’s motions, but he and the prosecution had been taken by surprise. Hantman in particular was caught flat footed and unprepared. For days, he had eagerly awaited the opportunity to interrogate Ray Crump on the stand, believing he could lead Crump to obliterate any chance of an acquittal. Still, Hantman had one last trick up his sleeve.

In his summation rebuttal, he held up the shoes that Ray Crump had worn when he was arrested. Hantman drew the jury’s attention to the two-inch heels in an attempt to make the case that Crump would have been taller than the five feet five and one-half inches that had been recorded at the time of his arrest.

“This is what gave Lieutenant Mitchell the appearance that this defendant Raymond Crump was his [Mitchell’s] size, his weight, which he said was five foot eight and 145 pounds,” a desperate Hantman pleaded, hoping that the jury would not remember that Crump’s driver’s license had, in effect, established a baseline for his height and weight of “five feet three and one-half inches and 130 pounds.”

His closing ploy, along with everything else he had presented, still amounted to little; his case was, at best, circumstantial, if he had any case at all.

Dovey Roundtree, in response, delivered her arguments for reasonable doubt regarding Crump’s guilt. First, she underscored the discrepancy between the 5 foot 8 inch and 185-pound suspect that was wanted by police and the actual height and weight of the defendant. Next, she noted that officers Sylvis and Bignotti had left the rowboat and the exit at the Fletcher’s Boat House underpass unattended; anyone could have left the area undetected during the time they went on their search.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree

Dovey Johnson Roundtree outside the United States District Court in Washington, about 1985. Photo credit: Dovey Johnson Roundtree / Goodb Back News

Roundtree also explained that had there been a struggle between the victim and the assailant, such as the prosecution had underscored throughout, fibers from Mary Meyer’s blue angora sweater would have been found on the defendant; yet there were none.

Similarly, blood from Crump’s cut finger would have been found on the victim’s clothing, but had not been. Roundtree also reminded the jury that mapmaker Joseph Ronsisvalle didn’t know about a number of exits out of the towpath area, through which an assailant could have easily fled.

Finally, Roundtree asked, with the vast resources that the government had at its disposal — helicopters, scuba divers, the state-of-the-art FBI Crime Laboratory, more than forty police officers and detectives assigned to the case, the draining of the canal, the repeated combing of the murder scene area for weeks — why hadn’t the murder weapon been found? Because, she argued, the real killer had escaped from the towpath area with the gun.

“I leave this little man in your hands,” attorney Dovey Roundtree concluded to the jury, “and I say to you fairly and truly, if you can find that he is five feet eight inches tall, that he weighs 185 pounds, irrespective of what he wore that day — if you can find — I cannot from this evidence — and I say you must have a substantial and a reasonable doubt in your minds, and until the Government proves its case beyond such doubt, then you must bring back a verdict of not guilty.”81

As the jury deliberated, they sent word for all photos that had been submitted as evidence. And they wanted the answer to two questions: (1) Had the police ever actually gone to the rock from which Crump said he had been fishing before allegedly falling from the rock into the water? (2) Was the defendant Ray Crump left-handed or right-handed? Judge Corcoran gave the jury the photos, but he told them that with regard to their other two requests “your recollection of the evidence controls.”

The Verdict

.

The following morning, Friday, July 30, 1965, the jury found Raymond Crump Jr. not guilty of the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer. Dazed and nearly catatonic, Ray had been standing behind the table along with his defense team. Dovey Roundtree embraced him. His mother, Martha, began singing praises to the Lord and other church members shouted hallelujahs throughout the courtroom.

Mary Meyer’s longtime friend Cicely Angleton was reportedly sitting in the back of the courtroom and showed little emotion.

As Dovey led the now-wobbly Ray Crump out of the courtroom, her adversary, Alfred Hantman, cast one final, embittered look toward her. He had just lost the most important case of his career, and he would never congratulate Roundtree or even acknowledge her victory.

What Went Wrong?

.

Immediately after the trial, Hantman received a call from Ben Bradlee. “What went wrong? Why had Crump gotten off?” queried Bradlee.82

Hantman would always maintain it had been a racial verdict, still convinced in 1991 that Dovey’s “ministerial” approach had profoundly affected the majority-black jury. “They’d take her word on anything,” Hantman said. Even in 1991, he was still confident that he had assembled enough evidence to get a conviction.83

His view was upheld by the Justice Department, which would always maintain that Crump had been guilty. The case, though unsolved, would never be reopened. U.S. Attorney David Acheson complained that Henry Wiggins had been a huge disappointment.

That night, an exhausted Dovey Roundtree, still very concerned for Ray Crump’s safety, put him on a bus for North Carolina, but only after his belongings were released to him. From the $1.50 that he had had in his possession at the time of his arrest, Crump handed his defense attorney, the woman who had saved his life, the dollar bill, thanking her in the only way he could. She told him she would “treasure it” forever as a keepsake…

Unfortunately, Raymond Crump’s grief — and troubles — were only beginning. Dovey Roundtree believed that Crump’s nine months in jail had transformed him from a gentle man into a violent one.

Convinced he had been taunted, beaten, abused, and possibly raped during his incarceration, Roundtree was heartsick. “He was not a remotely violent man when he was jailed for Mary Meyer’s murder in 1964,” she wrote in 2009, “but he became one afterward, both in the District of Columbia and in North Carolina,where he eventually moved with his second wife.”84

In fact, after the trial Ray Crump’s alcoholism became acute. Within the next few years, he would be charged with arson, assault with a deadly weapon, and violently threatening two girlfriends. In one fit of rage, Crump reportedly set his home on fire with his wife and children inside. His family escaped unhurt, and Ray was given a stiff prison sentence in North Carolina. Upon his release, he maintained his downward trajectory, committing arson once again and serving more jail time.

The condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) wasn’t formally recognized until 1980, though working models dealing with its cluster of symptoms were engendered in the early 1970s. Like the innocent, ill-prepared young men sent into harrowing and prolonged traumatic combat conditions in places like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, Ray Crump had been psychologically and physically maimed by the violence and brutality he was subjected to during his nine-month incarceration. Continually threatened, terrified, and increasingly unable to cope, what little ego strength he possessed disintegrated over time.

Like many returning combat soldiers, he became a broken, shattered man, capable of violence to others and to himself. Unfortunately, for many of Mary Meyer’s community and family in Washington, as well as people in the Justice Department, including Alfred Hantman, Ray Crump’s subsequent path of violence and crime merely served to bolster their belief that Mary Meyer’s true killer had gotten away with murder.

Crump’s post-trial criminal career also impressed high-profile criminal defense attorney Robert S. Bennett, who had closely observed the trial as Judge Corcoran’s law clerk. In his book In the Ring, published in 2008, Bennett wrote that he would have convicted Crump “because of the overwhelming evidence.”

In his view, Hantman had failed to get “into the heart and soul of jurors,” because he had over tried the case, most notably with Henry Wiggins. “It diluted the impact of his evidence,” Bennett recalled in an interview for this book in 2009. “Hantman was primarily responsible for losing the case.”

Bennett had been convinced of Crump’s guilt in part because he “gave the police an unbelievable explanation of why he was on the towpath — that he went fishing — especially since his fishing tackle was never located.”85

Author Nina Burleigh reached a similar conclusion about Ray Crump’s guilt. In spite of having been told in her one interview with Dovey Roundtree that Ray had been having a sexual tryst with a girlfriend adjacent to the canal towpath area on the Potomac,86 Burleigh nevertheless posed the same old, timeworn questions: “If he wasn’t fishing, what was he doing there?” “Why did he toss his hat and coat in the water?”87

According to Burleigh, “Dovey Roundtree the advocate would always contend in public that Crump was innocent,” insinuating that she might believe otherwise in private, and even going so far as to suggest that the attorney’s religious belief in Christian forgiveness rendered the factual basis of her clients’ earthly guilt or innocence irrelevant.88

Did Nina Burleigh actually believe that Dovey Roundtree would have staked her entire professional career and reputation, not to mention considerable financial resources, on the defense of someone whose innocence she wasn’t unequivocally convinced of? If so, that conclusion was entirely at odds with everything that Roundtree stated or wrote publicly about this case, including her private journey from initial doubt to absolute certainty about Crump’s innocence, detailed in her 2009 autobiography.89

Of all that she accomplished in her victory in the case of United States of America v. Ray Crump, Jr., Defendant, Roundtree wrote that she had been particularly gratified that she might have helped to ensure a continued search for the true killer:

I believe, too, that in winning acquittal for Ray Crump, I made it impossible for the matter of Mary Pinchot Meyer’s murder to be sealed off and forgotten, as the government so clearly wanted to do. There is much about the crime that bears the most serious and sustained investigation, and to the extent that my efforts in defending Raymond opened the path for researchers seeking to know more about the troubling circumstances surrounding her death, I am gratified.90

Such “serious and sustained investigation” was long in coming. For twelve years, those who knew about Mary Meyer’s diary and her relationship with President Kennedy chose to remain silent, until the National Enquirer finally broke the story in 1976…

Roundtree’s initial suspicions about the murder itself were fueled by a number of perplexing events that have never been explained: the menacing phone calls she received after each of her many excursions to the towpath; the mysterious disappearance of the stalled Nash Rambler that had brought Henry Wiggins and Bill Branch to witness the murder scene; the fact that neither a record of a repair order nor the identity of the vehicle’s owner was ever established…

Nearly fifty years after the murder, the most important questions are still unanswered: If Raymond Crump Jr. didn’t murder Mary Pinchot Meyer, who did…

Who, then, was the man that Henry Wiggins had seen standing over Mary’s corpse less than fifteen seconds after the fatal second shot was fired? His pristine, unstained clothes appeared to closely match the clothes worn by Ray Crump that morning.

Was it possible that the man Wiggins had seen was the same “Negro male” that had briefly peeked out from the woods, the one spotted by police officer Roderick Sylvis — well after the time Crump was discovered by Detective John Warner? If so, who was he? And was he even a “Negro male,” or someone purposely disguised to look like one?

The final question still remains: What, then, was the motive behind the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer? The intent was clearly to kill her, but why? Was there something Mary knew, or had discovered, that made her dangerous? If so, what — and to whom? And did that imply some concern about who Mary Meyer was, and what she might be capable of?

References

.


8. Dovey Roundtree, interview by Leo Damore, Washington, D.C., February 23, 1991.

9. Ibid.

10. 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, D.C., July 20, 1965, p. 3.

11. Ibid., p. 4.

12. Ibid., p. 6.

13. Ibid., pp. 6–7.

14. Ibid., pp. 12–15.

15. Ibid., p. 16.

16. Dovey Roundtree, interview by Leo Damore, Washington, D.C., April 4, 1992.

17. Trial transcript, pp. 46–47.

18. Ibid.

19. Alfred Hantman, Esq., interview by Leo Damore, Washington, D.C., May 21, 1991.

20. Trial transcript, p. 47.

21. Cord Meyer Jr., Facing Reality: From World Federalism to the CIA (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), p. 143. Upon his return to Washington on the evening of Mary Meyer’s murder, Cord Meyer was met at the airport by his former brother-in-law and Washington attorney Steuart Pittman and career CIA official Wistar Janney.

22. Trial transcript, pp. 75–76.

23. Ibid., p. 70.

24. Ibid., p. 96.

25. Ibid., p. 383.

26. Ibid., p. 575.

27. Ibid., pp. 110–112.

28. Ibid., p. 122.

29. Ibid., p. 122.

30. Ibid., p. 124.

31. Ibid., p. 140.

32. Ibid., p. 130.

33. Ibid., pp. 131–132.

34. Ibid., p. 134.

35. Ibid., p. 136.

36. Ibid., p. 710.

37. Ibid., p. 137.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid., p. 142.

40. Ibid., p. 207.

41. Ibid., p. 208.

42. Robert S. Bennett, Esq., interview by the author, Washington, D.C., November 11, 2009.

43. Trial transcript, p. 210.

44. Ibid., pp. 237–238.

45. Ibid., p. 241.

46. Ibid., p. 306.

47. Ibid., pp. 306–307.

48. Hantman, interview.

49. The distance from the 4300 block of Canal Road at the point that was directly across from the murder scene on the towpath to Fletcher’s Boat House was measured by both an automobile odometer and a GPS instrument and was found to be exactly 1.63 miles.

50. Trial transcript, p. 343.

51. Ibid., pp. 342–343.

52. Ibid., p. 352.

53. Roderick Sylvis, interview by the author, Wake Forest, N.C., July 23, 2008.

54. Ibid.

55. Trial transcript, pp. 345–347.

56. Sylvis, interview, July 23, 2008.

57. Trial transcript, p. 349.

58. Ibid., pp. 349–350.

59. Ibid., p. 350.

60. Ibid., p. 351.

61. Ibid.

62. Ibid., p. 342.

63. Sylvis, interview, July 23, 2008; Roderick Sylvis, telephone interview by the author, July 30, 2008.

64. Trial transcript, p. 359.

65. Ibid., p. 379.

66. Ibid., p. 381.

67. Ibid., p. 370.

68. Ibid., pp. 372–373.

69. Ibid., p. 378.

70. Ibid., pp. 407–413.

71. Ibid., p. 395, p. 424, p. 564.

72. Ibid., pp. 451–452.

73. Roberta Hornig, “Teacher Says He Passed by Mrs. Meyer,” Washington Evening Star, July 27, 1965.

74. Trial transcript, p. 657.

75. Ibid., p. 634.

76. Ibid., p. 658.

77. Ibid., pp. 658-659.

78. Ibid., pp. 766–767.

79. Ibid., p. 803.

80. Katie McCabe, interview by the author, September 22, 2008. The event was also mentioned by Nina Burleigh in A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer (New York: Bantam, 1998), p. 269.

81. Trial transcript, pp. 943–944.

82. Hantman, interview.

83. Ibid.

84. Katie McCabe and Dovey Roundtree, Justice Older Than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), p. 218. Also, in two of author Leo Damore’s interviews with Dovey Roundtree (February 23, 1991 and May 25, 1991), she expressed her belief that Ray had been repeatedly beaten, abused, and “probably raped” during his eight months in jail before trial.

85. Robert S. Bennett, In the Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer (New York: Crown, 2008), p. 36; Bennett, interview.

86. Burleigh, A Very Private Woman, p. 336.

87. Ibid., p. 281.

88. Ibid., p. 275.

89. McCabe and Roundtree, Justice Older Than the Law, pp. 190–192.

90. Ibid., p. 218.


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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One response to “The Brilliant Black Woman Who Defended the Accused Killer of JFK’s Mistress, Part 2”

  1. Brian says:

    This is a important story, it’s a shame the beginning of parts 1 and 2 are unreadable due to web site clutter.