Greeneville, Tennessee Courthouse 1979
I had just been allowed back in the courtroom during my son’s murder trial, and
as I listened to the lies the Prosecution was saying, I jumped up in my seat and screamed,
""He’s innocent and you know it. You lie. You know he didn’t do it. He wouldn’t have come back if he were guilty."
THE COURT: Sheriff, take the Jurors out
Again I screamed as Nelson’s hands were trying to keep my mouth shut, with
Donald on the other side of me trying to make me sit down.
"They’re lying. He didn’t –"
THE COURT: During the course of this trial and pre trial hearings and during the
course of the trial of the companion case, a gun was taken from this lady who just made this outburst in the companion case while she was in the courthouse during pre trail hearing, as I left the courtroom, this lady yelled, "Your prejudiced: after I had granted a motion to change venue in the case. The court is—
I pulled Nelson’s hands from my mouth. "Your Honor, I gave that gun to them,
they didn’t confiscate that gun from me.
The Court has ignored all of these matters up to this point understanding that
this lady is the mother of the Defendant.
" They didn’t take the gun from me."
THE COURT: For this outburst, the court finds this woman, Mrs. Dicks, in
contempt of Court and sentences her to ten days in jail and to a fifty dollar fine. Execute the sentence, Sheriff’
"You know he’s innocent. They didn’t confiscate the gun, I gave it to them.
THE COURT: Any further outburst during the course of this trail will result in the punishment—after the trial, the results of identical punishment to any other person. Further, all parties should be advised that it is a felony crime punishable by the penitentiary sentence in the State of Tennessee to threaten a witness, court officials, jurors, or any person involved in a civil or criminal proceedings.
That’s a lie. He’s not guilty." I
I gasped for breath. My lungs were full of air and yet, I couldn't breathe. My son reached out his hands, and the look in his tear-filled eyes pierced my soul. Every passing second, I felt his terror and heard his silent screams, though not a sound came from his lips.
Those beautiful green eyes first touched my heart so many years ago: it seemed
like only yesterday I held him in my arms and promised him the world. I swore to protect him from all the evil in the world, and to love him unconditionally, as every mother should. So many plans for him when he grew up, and now they were gone. Now, in his darkest hour, his eyes cried out for help. I felt his fear, confusion, disbelief, and desperation. A mothers love stood up! My loud voice echoed throughout the courtroom.
My protest burst forth in a huge breath, "No-o-o! No-o-o! My son is not guilty!
You’re not hearing the truth!" My gaze went to the jury and settled on the twelve faces who would decide my son's fate. All eyes turned to me, and I searched desperately for help. I wanted them to know that Donald "Chief" Strouth was the one who murdered Jimmy Keegan. I wanted them to know Jeff had no knowledge of the crime being committed inside the store that day, and Jeff hadn’t taken any of the robbery money.
The fact he’d been outside waiting in the car did not make him a participant in
a murder or robbery he didn’t know was happening. I wanted the jurors to know what happened in Strouth’s trial, the testimony that showed he alone committed the crime.
Judge Calhoun turned to the jury box. "You are to go to the jury room and
disregard anything you may have heard from any spectator." I watched the jurors as they were led out of the room, my legs became unsteady, and I couldn't breathe. Jeff turned to reached out, but four guards standing with him, seemed ready to pounce if he made a wrong move.
"Sheriff!" Judge Calhoun yelled. "Take this woman, and lock her up for contempt
I didn’t care what they did to me. They wanted to kill my son for a crime he
never committed, a crime he never saw. I had to save him. I was his mother and it was up to me to protect my child. We weren’t criminals. We had been a normal everyday family until this happened to us. We’d had a new home, four kids, two dogs and a mortgage. We went to church on the Sabbath day and tried to bring out children up right.
My ex-husband, Nelson was standing now, his hand tightly over my mouth. I fought
to take it off. My husband Donald stood and pushed me back on the bench, but I wouldn’t sit down. I knew they were trying to keep me out of trouble with the judge, but I was consumed with hatred and rage. The prosecutor had lied, and worse, he knew it. Judge Calhoun continued as Mike and Roger, my two brothers stood beside me.
"What are you doing?" Calhoun yelled at them.
"We’re going to walk with her to the Sheriff’s office to make sure she gets
there in one piece," Mike said to the judge. Both of them were only looking out for me because we’d heard what went on in Southern jails.
"I want a warrant for these two men, Sheriff." Calhoun rapped his gavel as the
deputies stood on either side and escorted me out of the courtroom. I heard whispering as I was being led away, but I didn’t care. I turned back to the judge once more.
"But judge," I protested. "My son is not guilty. You know he’s not." My voice
raised, I tried to pull away. Their hands tightened and dug around my arms.
I gazed at Jeff as they led me away. He had a look of utter helplessness and terror on his face. He seemed so young, dark curly hair, green eyes that once sparkled, but now were dull after a year in jail awaiting trial. I stumbled as fear overcame me. Fear of what they were going to do to my child. His gray suit fit him perfectly, his short curly hair was combed neatly and he looked more like the attorney than they did.
The guards surrounded him, as if he could escape with chains on his waist and
feet. They pulled on his chains like they would a wild beast that had to be forced into submission. I wanted to hurt them as they were hurting my son. I wanted to scream that he was not an animal they could abuse, but I knew it would be worse for Jeff if I did.
I saw the shocked looks of my parents as they sat silently behind Jeff, along with his wife, Betty, Nelson, and Donald.
Downstairs they took my purse, and walked me out the back door of the courtroom,
across the back yard and into the jail. The jailhouse was directly behind the courthouse in Greenville, Tennessee. The guards led me up the stairs to a room on the top floor. This was a nightmare, and soon I’d wake up. Our attorney’s words echoed in my ears as I sat on the wooden chair in the cell room.
As I stood in the small room that housed two other girls, I couldn't stop thinking about my son. I gazed around at the cold steel and empty block walls that rendered me powerless to help him.
The sounds of laughter caught my attention and I felt anger that anyone was laughing at this time. Puzzled, I peered through my bars and
into a small room across the way. I saw people jotting about, smiling, and laughing.
I remember thinking that this was a strange place to have a party, especially with a murder trial going on. That's when it hit me. I recognized one of the faces, then two. I was looking into the deliberating room. The jurors were in there deciding if my son would live or die.
I felt instant rage! I felt it surging through every vein in my body. I grasped
the bars testing them to see if I could rip them from their concrete foundation. My knuckles turned white and filled with pain, but I wanted vengeance.
I wanted those jurors to know the truth. I felt rage, helplessness and hatred. I
wanted to hold on to this new hatred that now possessed me, because it felt better than helplessness, but I could not. Jeff was at their mercy and I could not save him.
The jury only knew the story the Prosecutor portrayed to them.
They didn’t know about the stockpile of evidence that proved my son’s innocence. They didn't know about the altered testimony or of the lies. Deep inside beneath the rage, I wanted to plead with them. Beg them if necessary to save my son's life. But the time for pleading was over. I realized they had already read their verdict. And this is why they were celebrating. It was over.
Time stood still as I gazed down and saw my daughter, Tina standing outside. Her
long brown hair hung around her face. She looked lost and scared. At seventeen, she looked about twelve standing there outside the back door of the courthouse.
"Tina," I screamed." What happened? What did they do?"
She looked up at me, and I saw the pain and anguish on her young face. I knew in
that instant my worst nightmare was coming true. They were going to kill my son.
Tina turned and ran without a word, and I heard the distant screams. My knees buckled, as if a ton of steel rested on my shoulders, and I realized the screams I heard were my own. The screams kept coming. My knees stung as I collapsed to the floor. I felt as if God had forsaken me and I cried out. "God please don't take my son.... Please don't take my baby." God had deserted us, and I hated Him.
"Noooo," I screamed again as I clutched the bars.
"You can't kill my son. Noooo" the screams went on and I couldn’t stop. I threw
back my head and looked up at the once beautiful sky, pleading with a God I couldn’t see. Why had he let this happen to us?
I couldn't see below in the courtyard any longer because tears blinded me. The world had stopped. Numb, I hung on to the bars. I was vaguely aware of the other girls in the room, but I didn’t care about them. My mind felt as if it had left my body and I wanted to punch the wall, jump to the ground below.
I wanted to get Jeff and run away where no one could hurt him. He hadn't done
anything wrong, yet they were going to put him in the electric chair, strap him in, and pull the switch. They were going to burn him from the inside out.
What kind of monsters were they? I wanted my unbearable pain to stop. I wanted to take his place. Life wouldn’t be worth living if they murdered my son. The room spun, and through the fog I heard my mother's voice reach out to me, like a beacon of light.
I looked down and saw my mother and father standing there in the courtyard where
Tina had stood just minutes before. I saw my father, with his snow-white hair look up at the window where I stood. Tears were streaming down his face... his shoulders were slumped down from the pain.
He didn't say a word, but turned away. He’d suffered from heart trouble and I
knew this was not doing him any good, but I was powerless to stop. I saw my mother standing there, yelling up at me. Tears were streaming down her face and she tried to comfort me..
"We'll fight this thing, Shirley. Please stop. Your father can’t take this,
Please Shirley...it's not over...we've just begun."
My Mother was right. This Mothers Torment had just begun.
My nightmare was only beginning, and for the next twenty years I would be living it. I vaguely remember the nurse and my mother coming in and giving me a shot to quiet me down and let me sleep. I wanted to die, just go to sleep and never wake up again. As darkness overtook me, I thought back to when it all began.