NEEDHAM, Ala. (AP) — A single gunshot has haunted Quinnie Donald for more than five decades.
The former Alabama sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a black man in 1964 outside a house known for selling illegal booze. If the same events played out today, the death of Frank Andrews might have become a flashpoint in the national debate about police use of force and minority rights.
Instead, the white deputy spent 50-plus years second-guessing his actions and waiting to find out whether he would be prosecuted in the shooting, which forced the Andrews family to endure years of pain and left Donald with the sense that something was always hanging over his head, about to drop.
That gnawing uncertainty ended only weeks ago, when Donald, 78, learned that the FBI had closed its last investigation into Andrews’ death with a determination that no charges were warranted. He now says the shooting was an accident, but FBI reports show that’s not what he said at the time, and it’s still not clear exactly what happened that night in Lisman, just a few miles from the Mississippi state line in rural Choctaw County.
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“I’m proud that they closed it, but I don’t like bringing it up,” Donald said quietly during an interview at his home earlier this month. “I regret that it happened.”
Andrews’ family could not be located for comment on the government’s decision. Several years ago, two of Andrews’ relatives told The Associated Press they never really knew how he died.
FBI reports show Donald and another deputy stopped at Smith’s Cafe on Nov. 28, 1964, to investigate a possible disturbance or illegal alcohol. The county was dry at the time.
In the interview, Donald said he remembers the headlights of the patrol car illuminating Andrews on the side of the road as they arrived.
“He was either taking a pint of whiskey or selling a pint of whiskey. We never found out which,” Donald said.
The officers split up, and Donald said he saw Andrews put his hand in his a pocket as if trying to pull a knife on the other officer. Donald, whose regular service revolver was broken, said he was carrying an unfamiliar pistol that took only a slight touch to fire.
“I pulled out the gun and didn’t know it had such a light trigger,” he said. “It went off when it wasn’t supposed to.”
Andrews, 27, was shot in the lower back. Donald and his partner drove him to a hospital, but the man was dead within hours.
During the initial investigation, Donald did not explicitly claim that the shooting was an accident, according to an FBI report. Instead, he told investigators he fired because he believed Andrews was going to cut partner Bo Clark, the brother of then-Sheriff Leon Clark. A partially opened knife was found in Andrews’ pocket at the hospital, the FBI report said.
A grand jury declined to indict Donald, as sometimes happened in the 1960s, when Southern whites killed blacks under questionable circumstances. Then a monthlong FBI investigation ended without charges in December 1964.
Still, Donald said, he always felt the case could be revived, particularly after a prosecutor from a neighboring county encouraged him to plead guilty to an unspecified charge.
“He said, ‘If you don’t, they could come back on you,'” Donald said. “I said, ‘No, that’s not what happened. I’m not going to do that.'”
The matter was reopened in 2008 as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into “cold cases” from the civil rights era.
An agent questioned Donald in 2008, but his memory was fuzzy by then, and many witnesses had died. The sole surviving witness who was questioned said the shooting could have been a mistake, bolstering Donald’s current memory. That witness also said Donald was not known for mistreating others because of their race, the FBI report stated.
Federal officials held the case open until late 2013, when they issued their findings in a report that noted inconsistencies and lingering questions about what really happened. The agency sent a letter to Andrews’ family informing them of the decision, but not Donald.
The former deputy did not find out he had been cleared until this fall, after the Justice Department responded to an Associated Press request for a copy of the letter and a news story about the decision was published. Instantly, Donald experienced a wave of relief.
He left law enforcement nine months after the shooting and later spent 26 years in the trucking business, retiring in 1999. He’s been married to his wife, Melba, for about 58 years, and they have two grown children who live across the street. He has served for about 20 years as mayor of Needham, population 99.
An FBI summary, released to a project at Louisiana State University that reviews unsolved killings, indicated that Donald struggled with his emotions after the shooting and needed time to recover from the psychological trauma. Donald puts it in religious terms.
“I think the devil just lets it pop up in your mind, ‘You should have done this. You should have done that,'” he said.
Today, he sees news of police shootings and wonders what the officers are experiencing, how they will cope.
He knows one thing: He will never again pull the trigger of a handgun.
“When I left the sheriff’s office, I gave my gun away,” he said. “To this day, I don’t have a pistol. I don’t want one.”