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Amazing and flawed

Three years after his death, lawyers try to clear a civil rights icon of an incest conviction

D. Waldt (Wikipedia Commons)

Amazing and flawed

In the 1960s James Bevel was one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s top advisers and an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Now, three years after his death, Bevel's attorney is trying to clear the reverend of a conviction for incest.

Bonnie Hoffman, Bevel's attorney, argued before the Virginia Supreme Court on Monday, Sept. 12, that Bevel's conviction should be tossed out because his case was in the process of being appealed when he died in December 2008.

The attorney for the state countered that convictions are presumed to be valid, citing a judge who rejected Bevel's bid for posthumous relief after hearing an emotional testimony from the daughter he abused.

A ruling is likely in early November.

"Bevel was an amazing, influential, flawed character in history," wrote Taylor Branch, a civil rights historian, in an email response. Bevel enlisted Alabama elementary and high school students to protest for civil rights in what came to be the 1963 Children's Crusade. Violent images of young people being attacked by police dogs and knocked down by fire hoses helped turn public opinion against segregation.

Bevel had already met with King in 1962 and was a key member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the time. He was an impassioned preacher and on a more radical, activist side of the movement, pushing for more aggressive action and mass protest.

In 2008, Aaralyn Mills leveled charges of "unlawful fornication" against her father, claiming he sexually abused her when she was a teenager in the 1990's and the family lived in Leesburg. The Washington Post described in a 2008 article the police sting in which Aaralyn called her father on the phone to get him to confess:

As the wheels of the tape recorder rolled, Aaralyn, then 27, brought up a period of her life that she had longed to forget. She spoke in a cool, emotionless voice, her tone strong, her words firm.

"You don't consider yourself to be a pedophile?" she asked Bevel.

Her questions seemed to make her father, then 69, angry. He screamed and swore until it was hard to make out some of his words. All women, he shouted, are prostitutes until they reach a state where sex is only for procreation. He called himself a scientist who tried to teach his children the difference between perversion and procreation.

"What female," he raged, "produces a son that's worth [anything], that can stand on principles because his mother educated him early on to be principled, because she was principled? Where is one who is not a prostitute?"

None of it was new to Aaralyn, who'd heard such convoluted pseudo-philosophical outbursts so many times that she could repeat many of her father's theories herself.

"So, what you [are] saying [is] that all your sexual interactions with me were . . . scientific processes?" the daughter asked.

"Yes, ma'am," the father replied.

The detective listened impassively as Bevel bellowed and Aaralyn pressed. For 90 minutes, no matter where her father's rants went, she deftly turned the conversation back to that day in the apartment in Leesburg. And when it was over, police and prosecutors had the key piece of evidence they would need to charge an aging civil rights icon with incest.

Bevel had only served a few months of his fifteen-year sentence and was trying to appeal the charges when he died of pancreatic cancer.

Bevel's attorney, Bonnie Hoffman, is seeking what is known as an abatement, which is based on the theory that a conviction is not final until the appeals process is complete.

"An appeal is a fundamental step in the process," Hoffman said. "When it's terminated by death, the conviction should be abated."

Virginia law is unclear on the custom of abatement, although Hoffman said the state Supreme Court has routinely abated the convictions of deceased appellants in the past.

Bevel's case differs from most, however, because of his daughter's testimony at a 2009 hearing. Aaralyn Mills was one of several of Bevel's daughters who had been sexually abused. Mills told Loudoun County Circuit Judge Burke McCahill that the conviction had given her closure.

"I wish I could just abate my memories and abate the whole experience, but the reality is it did happen," Mills testified.

McCahill admired Mills' courage in coming forward and said her rights had to be considered. His ruling denying the abatement was upheld by the Virginia Court of Appeals.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Virginia Theisen agreed with Mills in his argument before Virginia Supreme Court justices Monday. "The presumption of innocence that goes with a criminal defendant is gone once that person is convicted."

Theisen also argued that the concept of abatement is outdated, largely because of the criminal justice system's growing interest in protecting victims' rights.

A Baptist minister, Bevel was also involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and later, the Million Man March. "[Bevel was] one of the kind of figures who was important to the Civil Rights movement," said John A. Kirk, Chair and Donaghey Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "He was more on the cutting edge."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette Rikki is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD contributor.

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