The Church House Murder: Part II

The trial of Clarence Newton Johnson for the murder of his son-in-law, Ernest Buffington, was held at the Dade County courthouse during the March term of the Superior court of 1947, not quite a year after the murder occurred. The presiding judge was J.M.C. Townsend, who was well-known as a wise and fair judge, not only in Dade County but across the state.

From reading the trial transcript, one comes away with a sense of Judge Townsend as a pretty sharp country judge who made quick and clear rulings and ran a tight ship. No Perry Mason- type tricks were permitted in his courtroom.

But after looking a bit further, it is evident that he was much more than that. An internet search on Judge Townsend yielded an article published in a Georgia law review and authored by Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a professor of law at the University of Georgia. Writing in January 1984, he called Townsend one of Georgia’s most memorable judges and ardent defenders of individual rights. He wrote: “Few men have been as beloved as Judge Townsend. People loved him because of his humanity and goodness. They also loved him because he constantly reminded them, lawyers as well as laymen, of the transcendent value of the principles underlying and protected by the Bill of Rights and by the notion of due process of law.”

Specifically, Dr. Wilkes praised Judge Townsend for his stout opposition to the introduction into any trial of evidence of a defendant’s crimes other than the one s/he was being currently tried for. He stated that Townsend’s greatest judicial opinion was the one in the Winston vs. State trial where he urged the adoption of a rule forbidding the use of illegally obtained evidence in criminal trials. The U.S. Supreme Court was still wrestling with aspects of this concept in recent years. For a judge in the 1940s this was pretty forward- thinking stuff.

Not only was Judge Townsend eminently qualified to preside over such a difficult trial, but so were the other participants who actually tried it. Solicitor General J.H. Paschall had tried cases all over North Georgia as a representative of the Superior Courts. Sam Welch, the defending attorney, was a participant in many critical court cases in Dade County and surrounding areas during the 1940s and ‘50s.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the trial of Clarence Johnson was the fact the the presumptive key witness, the accused’s daughter and the victim’s wife, Mrs. Ruby Mae Johnson Buffington, did not appear. To add to the terrible sadness of the case, Mrs. Buffington had apparently been pregnant at the time of the murder and had since borne a child whose birth was very difficult. (The child later died as a toddler, so another tragedy accrued to this case.) Since the birth, Mrs. Buffington had suffered repeating bouts of illness and was simply unable to take part in the trial at the time as attested to by a statement from her doctor. Her father’s lawyer asked for a trial delay because of this, but the judge determined that the trial should go forward. There is no evidence in the record that she ever testified.

Witnesses who appeared at the trial fell into two categories: actual eyewitnesses to at least some portion of the events of the day and character witnesses for the defendant. Most of the witnesses who testified had not known who Mr. Buffington was prior to the murder, had not known any of his background, and had no idea of the situation when hearrived at Head River Church that day.

The first five or six witnesses who testified all had pieces of the story--some more, some less--depending on where they had been standing when the incident occurred. One point that occurs consistently in the testimony is that the incident happened very quickly with little or no indication that such a thing was about to take place.

A couple said Mr. Buffington grabbed his wife by the arm and tried to manhandle her into leaving with him. Some said he threatened her verbally. A couple who were standing very close to the incident didn’t actually see the stabbing, only Mr. Buffington’s reaction to it. But they saw Clarence Johnson with the knife in the aftermath--he did nothing to hide it. One or two witnesses said his daughter, Pearline, told him he shouldn’t have done it and he replied that he was glad he had, but this was a minority opinion.

Probably the most interesting and explanatory testimony came from Edgar Johnson, son of the accused and companion of the victim earlier in the day. He was 17 years old at the time of the trial and his participation must have put a terrible strain on his family. In response to questioning, he testified that, on the day of the murder, he, his brother-in-law Mr. Buffington, and his brother, who I believe was named Paul, and a man named Grady “got in the car, went to Valley Head, got two pints of whiskey, started back. My brother got out at Roy Blalock's; we went on up to the house, stopped, got out, stood on the porch a while, then we went up to the church house. On the way there he (Buffington) threatened to get the preacher and whip him all over the church house and his wife.”

Edgar testified further that, once they got to the church, they stopped briefly in front of the church, and then Buffington pulled off (away from the front of the church) “went down in the woods and drunk some more liquor.” When the lawyer asked for a clarification of who did this, he said, “Buffington and Grady”. When asked about how much whiskey the two had drunk, he replied, “.About a pint and a half.” He further stated that Buffington and Grady eventually returned to the car, then Bill (Buffington) got out, went to the church house, got his little boy and came back.” When asked if he (Edgar) could see what happened in front of the church, he replied that he could not.

When asked if he had drunk any liquor on the day of the murder, Edgar answered, “No.” When asked if he saw his father stab the victim, he replied, “No.” When asked if he saw the victim coming back to the car holding his stomach, he answered, “Yes.”

He further stated that he headed out in Buffington’s car (with Grady in tow) to take Buffington to the doctor in Fort Payne but that the victim died before they could get him there.

I wonder what happened to the little boy, Buffington’s son, who had been in the car during the assault, but there is no testimony about what was done with him. One other item of interest: When asked if Grady went with him to the hospital, Edgar answered, “Yes.” When he was asked if Grady returned home with him, the answer

was, “No.” When asked why, he replied, “They put him in jail.”

Next time: The Verdict and the Outcomes --The End of a Sad Story

--Joy Odom

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