The Notorious Botched Cover-Up That Became ‘Alabama’s Watergate’

Introduction

It was police, not politicians, who misled the public in 1975.

Baltimore has dropped at least 41 drug-related charges in the past few weeks after two body camera videos revealed cops planting drugs as evidence. The released footage quickly went viral, sparking internet outrage. A similar situation also occurred in May of this year when a Colorado cop’s body camera revealed that he had reenacted a car search to fake footage for his camera.

These incidents both harken back to one of the most well-publicized evidence-planting incidents by the police. In December 1975, officers in Montgomery, Alabama, falsified evidence and police reports to cover up the murder of an innocent man. The fallout, which resulted in the resignation or termination of 11 officers and city officials, became national news. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post ran stories on it, the latter dubbing it “Alabama’s ‘Watergate.’”

Montgomery police officer Donald B. Foster had been investigating a grocery store robbery when he spotted Bernard Whitehurst. The white officer immediately suspected that Whitehurst, who was black, had robbed the store even though he was dressed differently from the suspect’s description.

According to police reports, Whitehurst fired a gun at Foster while fleeing, and Foster defended himself by shooting Whitehead twice in the chest, killing him at age 32.

Investigations later revealed this account to be false. Whitehurst had not had a gun, so he couldn’t have fired at the police officer. In fact, when officers realized that Whitehurst wasn’t who they had been looking for, they tried to cover up their fatal error by planting a gun on him.

Florence Whitehurst, wife of Bernard Whitehurst, embraced by her son Stacy at her Montgomery home. (Credit: Dave Martin/AP Photo)
Florence Whitehurst, wife of Bernard Whitehurst, embraced by her son Stacy at her Montgomery home. (Credit: Dave Martin/AP Photo)

There were other deceptions, too. Although Foster shot Whitehurst in the back, police reports said he was shot in the front. Suspiciously, the coroner didn’t report the correct entry point because he relied on the police reports instead of performing an autopsy. The police also didn’t inform Whitehurst’s family of his death. By the time one of his relatives heard about it on the radio, his body was already embalmed.

In order to keep these details secret, the police tried to silence anyone who stood in their way. According to The Washington Post’s 1977 article comparing the cover-up to Watergate, “Prominent members of the community who pursued the Whitehurst case accuse police of smearing them with illicit sex and drug frameups [sic].” A witness testified that she had heard one of the cops shout at Foster that he’d killed the wrong person the night of Whitehurst’s death, but the radio log tapes couldn’t be verified because someone erased them.

In the aftermath, three officers were indicted for perjury, and one went to trial (it ended in a hung jury). After the trial, State Attorney General William Baxley made a deal with police and government officials allowing them to escape conviction. All they had to do was take a polygraph test. If they passed the notoriously inaccurate test, nothing would happen, but if they failed, they’d be fired.

According to the Alabama news site AL.com, Montgomery’s mayor, police chief, and public safety director all resigned; and eight police officers left either by resignation or termination. No officer was ever convicted in the Whitehurst murder.

But Whitehurst has not been forgotten in Montgomery, where police shootings continue to stir up memories of his death and the subsequent cover-up. In 2012, the city approved a resolution expressing “its acknowledgment and regret of the case” to Whitehurst’s family, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. Since then, the city has erected two markers honoring the slain man. Yet four decades later, Whitehurst’s family is still waiting for compensation.

Article Details:

The Notorious Botched Cover-Up That Became ‘Alabama’s Watergate’

  • Author

    Becky Little

  • Website Name

    History.com

  • Year Published

    2017

  • Title

    The Notorious Botched Cover-Up That Became ‘Alabama’s Watergate’

  • URL

    http://www.history.com/news/the-notorious-botched-cover-up-that-became-alabamas-watergate

  • Access Date

    October 20, 2017

  • Publisher

    A+E Networks