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Who had the motive to frame an innocent man? Everyone did

The railroad, the local police agencies, and the U.S. War Department all desperately wanted to prosecute somebody, anybody, just not the young Marine who almost certainly was young Martha Brinson James' actual killer.

Robert E. Lee Folkes consults with his defense attorney, Leroy Lomax, left, as his friend and adviser William Pollard, right, looks on. (Image: Oregon Journal)

In the cold light of history, the conviction and execution of Robert E. Lee Folkes was almost certainly a railroad job. And it’s highly likely that the real murderer of the lovely young Martha Brinson James was none other than the prosecution’s star witness, Marine Corps Pvt. Harold Wilson.

As outlined in last week’s column, it was Wilson’s conflicting testimony, along with an unsigned confession likely beaten out of Folkes by the Los Angeles Police Department, aided by the hostility of the jury and some rabble-rousing references to Folkes as a “zoot-suiter” in local newspapers, that sent the cosmopolitan young black man to the gas chamber.

But why? Why would all the authority figures, from the railroad’s house detective all the way up to Oregon Gov. Earl Snell and maybe even higher, have acted in this way, to hang a man they should have at least suspected was innocent of the crime?

We can’t really know the answer to that question. But if you consider the consequences that might have resulted from Wilson being publicly accused of this crime, it begins to make a lot more sense — especially in the context of an America in its darkest wartime hour.

Southern Pacific Railroad

Let’s start with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Geier, in his book, makes an excellent case for the railroad having had a strong incentive to pin this killing on Folkes. To the railroad, Folkes was a somewhat dangerous man – an intelligent, articulate, well connected black man who also happened to be a prominent member of a union that the railroad really wanted to break. Sending him up the river in the face of plenty of evidence of his innocence would send a powerful message to members of that union that it could not protect them.

Oregon law enforcement agencies

The various law-enforcement organizations charged with investigating this crime shared a strong incentive to pin it on Folkes rather than trying to indict Wilson for it. The reason was simple: to save face. There’s no ambiguity here: They all bungled it badly. First, they didn’t secure the crime scene; the train stopped at several stations, with people freely allowed on and off, before law enforcement people met up with it at Eugene to start the investigation.

And when the agencies finally did get involved, they did it like a pack of paparazzi at the Oscars. There was the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, the Eugene Police Department, the Oregon State Police, the railroad’s own in-house detective bureau, and, once they got to the scene, the Linn County Sheriff’s Office. Federal investigators from the U.S. Navy and FBI soon weighed in. Witnesses were interviewed and re-interviewed, all in a big room so that they could hear each other; naturally, their stories started to influence one another. Evidence was mishandled, stepped in, tracked around, and then cleaned up. Then, to top it all off, the railroad company parked the “murder car” on a spur line right next to the biggest U.S.O. facility in the region for a week, where it (and any lingering uncompromised evidence) received hundreds of visits from curious soldiers and sailors.

A day or two later, the story was in the headlines nationwide, and federal law-enforcement officials were making some very nasty remarks about evidence-handling and crime-investigating skills out in Oregon. A nationwide public-relations disaster was in the offing.

That much we know, as a matter of public record. Here’s the speculative part of the scenario:

Oregon authorities can see it’s important to find somebody to pin this on, and fast, so that they can get back to not being a national laughingstock. But the most likely suspect, Wilson, has had a week in which to get his story straight, and because he’s white and a military man, any jury will choke on the “reasonable doubt” introduced by their failure to secure the crime scene. Prosecuting him will only result in a high-profile acquittal that will showcase every detail of their incompetence and make them look even dumber. What’s needed is a fall guy to pin it on. And nobody’s more vulnerable to that sort of judicial lynching, in 1943 America, than one of the train’s African-American crew members. A provincial jury made up of white people whose familiarity with black people consists entirely of racist pulp-mag stories about savage black rapists attacking pure white maidens will be far more likely to convict a black man than a white one in the absence of any real evidence of guilt. And such a fall-guy just happens to be handy, so with a little help from the LAPD’s jailhouse interrogation squad, they fabricate what they need.

So, is this what happened? We can’t really know for sure. But it seems very likely. The motive was certainly there.

The U.S. War Department

But the agency with the most compelling motivation to crucify Folkes was the U.S. War Department. Here’s why:

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an 18-year-old single woman, and it’s early 1943 – close to the darkest hour of the war. You’re doing your best to be brave, and everyone must make sacrifices, so you’re riding trains unchaperoned and walking to your home-front manufacturing job in the dark by yourself. But it’s OK, because you feel safe with all the uniformed soldiers and sailors around. Strong and brave and confident, they represent security to you, and you feel sure that if you should ever need anything, you could ask one of them to help you out.

Then suddenly you hear about a story from the West Coast: A U.S. Marine has been accused of having raped and murdered a pretty girl just like you, in a Pullman sleeper car just like the ones you’re riding in regularly, all by yourself, on long war-related trips. Suddenly you’re looking at those soldiers and sailors in a completely different way – as potential threats rather than as sources of comfort. And every other pretty woman in the country is doing the same. They’re avoiding rail travel. When forced to take an overnight train, they’re arriving at their destinations exhausted and unrested. Worse yet, other low-quality men in uniform are starting to jump on this criminal bandwagon. There’s another assault, and another. Soon women are refusing to travel alone on rail cars and wondering if they’re safe on the streets. Morale, at this most key point in the war effort, collapses.

And it all could have been avoided if … if the crime that touched it all off had been committed not by a uniformed soldier, but by, say, an African-American railroad cook. That would make it so much more of a random sort of threat; a black train cook climbing into a Pullman berth with a passenger would be so unusual that people would view it as a freak incident.

Looked at this way, railroading Folkes was almost a patriotic duty, and his subsequent execution wasn’t much different from a death on a battlefield. It may even have saved lives.

But the price of that non-outcome was a grave injustice, an innocent man killed and a guilty one not only set free, but released from the duty assignment that would likely have cost him his life. And in fact, out of all the military personnel in that “murder car” on the night Martha James was killed, the only one who survived the war was the one who, if our theory is correct, should have taken Folkes' place in the gas chamber:

Pvt. Harold Wilson.

(Sources: Geier, Max G. The Color of Night. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2015; Barker, Neil. “Murder on No. 15.…,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, fall 2011)