Hair links World War II vet to 1949 Galveston murder

This photo spread appeared in the Nov. 28 edition of The Galveston Daily News. The photos by the water show suspect James Madison Turner III telling police officials where he tossed the murder weapon.

This photo spread appeared in the Nov. 28 edition of The Galveston Daily News. The photos by the water show suspect James Madison Turner III telling police officials where he tossed the murder weapon.

The day after Thanksgiving in 1949, the Texas City police chief and two Texas Rangers knocked at the door of the Turner home and asked to see the couple’s adult son, who was visiting for the holidays with his wife and child. They told James Madison Turner III they wanted to talk to him about a robbery from the previous year. He went voluntarily, although he later said he was suspicious about what was really going on.

For the next two days, the lawmen questioned Turner in Galveston and Texas City, finally getting him to confess to murdering grocery store owner Marvin Clark on April 4. But two days after he signed his confession, Turner proclaimed a very different version of events. He recanted his confession and accused the officers of beating him mercilessly and forcing him to regurgitate what they told him about the murder. The Rangers strenuously denied the claim, even eventually playing for a packed courtroom a recording of Turner’s confession—the first time such a recording was ever used in the trial of a local murder case.

Those dueling claims of what happened during that weekend after Thanksgiving played an almost larger role than the facts of the murder. But prosecutors had an even stronger piece of evidence against Turner—hairs found at the murder scene. According to a forensic dermatologist, whose methods would have been at home in any current crime scene drama, the hairs exactly matched those of the accused killer.

Would jurors believe the young World War II veteran who broke down several times on the stand while recounting the harrowing hours he spent with the Rangers? Or would they conclude his confession contained the truth about what happened the night Clark bled to death on the sidewalk of his home on Bayou Shore Drive? And how much credence would they give to the four incriminating hairs?

One year, three months, and 27 days before Turner’s trial began, Clark drove home from C&M Food Town, the grocery store he owned at 46th and Broadway. He carried with him the day’s receipts, about $300 (nearly $3,000 today). As he walked toward his front door, a masked man emerged from the shadows. The shots awakened Clark’s mother, asleep inside. When she ran out, she found her son, riddled with bullet holes. His attacker had vanished, along with Clark’s money box and the gun he always carried with him. But the robber left something behind—a dirty, khaki-colored hood investigators speculated he used as a mask.

Police searched for months and interviewed 185 suspects. When they picked up Turner almost eight months later, they felt certain they’d caught the killer. But it took the better part of a day to get what they considered concrete proof. Shortly after bringing him to the Texas City police station, the Rangers took several of Turner’s hairs—he said by force, they said he volunteered—and rushed them to the crime lab at the Department of Public Safety in Austin. Scientists there confirmed it. Turner’s hair matched those found in the hood. A few hours later, the accused killer confessed.

Galveston police used a giant magnet mounted on a crane to search Offats Bayou for the gun used to kill grocer Marvin Clark. A fisherman found Clark's gun but never did find the murder weapon, or the metal box Clark used to carry home his store's daily cash receipts. (The Galveston Daily News)

Galveston police used a giant magnet mounted on a crane to search Offats Bayou for the gun used to kill grocer Marvin Clark. A fisherman found Clark’s gun but never did find the murder weapon, or the metal box Clark used to carry home his store’s daily cash receipts. (The Galveston Daily News)

According to his statement, Turner had often seen Clark come into the Blue Ribbon Cafe at 61st and Broadway late at night with a money box. He guessed it contained the grocery store receipts. Sitting in that same cafe after he car broke down one night in April, Turner decided to rob Clark as he arrived home. Turner parked his car at a filling station on Broadway and walked through back lots to the Clark home at 1301 Bayou Shore Drive. He waited about an hour and a half for Clark to pull into the driveway. As his victim walked up the sidewalk, Turner stepped out of the shadows and yelled, “hold it!” But Clark had a gun and fired it at least once before Turner started shooting back. He pulled the trigger until his gun ran out of bullets. After Clark fell to the ground, Turner grabbed his gun and the money box and ran toward Offats Bayou. He dumped everything but the money into the water and ran back to his car.

The headline in The Galveston Daily News on Nov. 27, 1949, proclaimed the killer’s confession.  But on Nov. 28, the front page declared, “Clark Suspect Recants.” During his trial, which began on July 31, 1950, Turner took the stand on the third day of testimony to tell the story of his abuse at the hands of the two Texas Rangers. According to The Daily News reporter, several women in the courtroom broke down in tears as he retold the harrowing events. Turner claimed he fabricated his entire confession based on things the lawmen told him during his brutal interrogation sessions. Not long after he confessed, Turner slit his wrists in the county attorney’s office bathroom. The wounds were superficial, but the Rangers took him to John Sealy Hospital. The doctor and nurse who treated him both testified they never saw any evidence of a beating and Turner never claimed he’d been mistreated.

To help counter Turner’s claims he’d acted under duress, the prosecutor produced the recorded confession. Judge Donald Markle ordered the jury out of the room but allowed County Attorney Raymond Magee to play it so he could determine whether it should be introduced into evidence. After a two-day battle between the lawyers over the confession, Markle ruled the recording could not be played for the jury but the written confession, signed by Turner, could be used against him.

Much of the confession’s contents were printed in the newspaper after Turner’s arrest. But details about the hair were new—and hard for defense attorney Marsene Johnson Jr. to refute. Several of the hairs found in the hood left at the crime scene showed evidence of damage caused by a severe heat injury. Turner’s hairs had the same characteristics, something found in only 1 in 20,000 people, according to Derward Nollner, chief chemist and toxicologist at the Austin lab. A UTMB dermatologist who consulted on the case drew for the jury pictures on a blackboard showing what the diseased hairs looked like. On the stand, Turner admitted he’d had all the hair on his head and face burned off during the war in a munitions accident. He won the Purple Heart for his service.

Prosecutors called Turner, then 26, a cold-blooded killer and demanded the death penalty. During closing arguments, the county attorney stood in front of the defendant and shouted, “Turner, I’m going to give you a jolt!” But jurors hesitated to go that far. After deliberating 4 hours and 42 minutes, they found Turner guilty but gave him 30 years in prison instead of the electric chair. During his formal sentencing hearing in September, Turner said he bore no malice toward the judge or jury. He also said he would like to appeal his conviction but had no money.

“Few people realize that it costs money to appeal a case,” he said. “I don’t have that money. My wife and my parents don’t have that money either. They have gone into debt to help me in this trial. … I want to get out on parole as soon as I can so that I can repay my parents for all the money they spent on me.”

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>