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Case of Shooting at Black Judge’s Home, Thought Racial, Takes a Twist

April 21, 1996

LIVINGSTON, Ala. (AP) _ A black judge, holding court in the old plantation country of western Alabama, found himself both victim and witness when shotgun blasts shattered the quiet of night, and his bedroom windows.

The Feb. 28 attack came only weeks after Circuit Judge Eddie Hardaway had sent two white men to jail for vandalizing black churches with a sledgehammer.

Hardaway blamed race and politics, citing powerful, unidentified whites behind the attack, and civil rights activists rallied around. To many, the attack recalled the region’s Ku Klux Klan violence of the 1960s, down to witnesses’ descriptions of a suspicious man wearing something white over his head.

But developments since the harrowing late-night attack have complicated the case and thrust the judge into a new role. Once victim and witness, he says he now stands among the ranks of the accused, for obstructing the investigation.

Furthermore, a black state trooper with close ties to the judge says he has become the No. 1 suspect.

Hardaway, the first black elected to the circuit bench in a territory covering three poor counties, says he is speaking out to defend himself against allegations from Alabama Bureau of Investigation agents that he has hindered their work. He also says investigators believe, wrongly, that he is trying to conceal a romantic entanglement that led to the shooting.

``They threatened to prosecute me last time I talked to them, said I was obstructing justice,″ Hardaway said in an interview last week. ``They’re telling me I’m withholding evidence, saying I’m not cooperating.″

No one was injured and no charges have been filed. A state grand jury may hear the case in coming weeks.

The Bureau of Investigation has refused comment on the case or Hardaway’s allegations that its agents are conspiring to smear him.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken over the case from a local prosecutor, a friend of Hardaway. Sessions, seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, has said preliminary evidence indicates the shooting was linked to ``personal reasons not involving race,″ the same conclusion of local police.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, expressed concern about the turn the case has taken.

``I would hope this is not an effort to whitewash this case because the state is embarrassed about the growing number of attacks on African-Americans there,″ Lowery said from Atlanta.

Rewards totaling more than $25,000 are being offered for information in the shooting. Attorneys in Hardaway’s circuit put up $10,000 of the money and covered the town with posters seeking leads.

Hardaway told reporters he was sleeping in the early hours of Feb. 28 when shotgun pellets tore into his house, narrowly missing him, his wife and a nephew. Hardaway said a telephone line was cut and a front porch light bulb was removed, forcing his fearful family to cower in a hall until daylight, unable to summon help.

Although Hardaway immediately charged racism, Police Chief Jeff Manuel, himself black, said residents of a nearby housing project reported seeing a black man with a shotgun around the time of the shooting. He said they had taken back their initial reports that the man was wearing a white hood and believed instead he was wearing a light-colored ski mask.

Police questioned state trooper Steven Smith Jr., whose white Mitsubishi Eclipse natched witnesses’ descriptions of a white Eclipse seen in the neighborhood that night. He once lived in a room at the home of Hardaway’s mother and knows the judge through work.

``The investigators themselves tell me I’m a suspect, but the Department of Public Safety hasn’t said anything,″ Smith said last week. ``They said they had a witness who identified me.″

If the shooter was black, Hardaway contended, he must have been paid by whites, but the judge offered no evidence. Then reporters from two local papers quoted unidentified sources close to the investigation as challenging Hardaway’s version of events.

Hardaway said ABI agents have questioned him about information contained in the news stories, including claims he was not home at the time of the shooting and that the gunfire was linked to his alleged relationship with a woman other than his wife.

The judge said those allegations are lies. He said he was being set up by someone who does not want him on the bench.

``I know who’s involved, I just can’t say,″ Hardaway said. ``I can’t prove it. But I see them every day.″

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