On May 24, 1968, William E. Powell, general manager of Capitol Chevrolet, borrowed a black Chevrolet from the dealership and invited 72-year-old W. Haynie Gourley, Capitol’s founder, to take a ride. Minutes later, Powell, who was driving the car, paused at the intersection of Elm Hill Pike and Spence Lane. Before the traffic light turned green, Haynie Gourley was dead.
According to Powell, a tall, thin black man had jumped into the backseat of the Chevrolet and demanded that the two white men give him their money. Powell said that the black man then shot Gourley three times in the head and neck, shot Powell in the left leg, and then fled. Gourley’s wallet was found, untouched, in the backseat.
Because both Gourley and Powell were well-known, socially prominent businessmen and because 1968 was already a year in which assassinations and racial tension had filled the newspapers, the murder gripped Nashville’s attention. Tall, slender black men from all over town were brought in for questioning. Powell even picked a likely suspect from a police lineup, only to decide, in short order, that he had made a mistake. Meanwhile, the Metro homicide squad continued to search, in vain, for a murder weapon. District Attorney Tom Shriver had been brought in on the investigation. Powell had asked his attorney, Cecil Branstetter, to represent him in the case.
It was well known that Powell’s recent dealings with the Gourley family had been less than happy. The Gourleys, who wanted their son, Billy, to take over the family business, had even offered to buy out Powell’s share of the Capitol stock.
Clearly, there would be a trial. Clearly, important people would be called to the stand. Newspaper and TV reporters watched closely, hoping that dirty linen would be aired.
In the end, the search for Haynie Gourley’s murderer would come down to a courtroom face-off between two legendary attorneys, two of old Nashville’s most colorful and theatrical characters. As the trial got under way, as far as Nashville was concerned, the drama had only begun.
For 10 months, Cecil Branstetter had known that the District Attorney’s office was coming for Bill Powell. He had known it ever since May 24, the day Haynie Gourley had been fatally shot and Bill Powell had been wounded.
Branstetter could read between the lines. As a veteran defense lawyer, he had been involved in his share of criminal cases. He knew that reports coming out of Attorney General Tom Shriver’s office and from the Metro homicide squad didn’t bode well for Powell. Already, investigators had asked Powell to retrace the route he and Gourley had taken on the day of the shooting. Already, Powell had identified the “negro gunman” from a police lineup, only to hedge later on a positive identification.
Branstetter admitted that, at first, even he had not been convinced of Powell’s innocence. But now he was convinced that his client was being railroaded. The police department could not find the real killer. To save face, they had focused the investigation on Powell. Branstetter was convinced they had picked the wrong man.
On one point, at least, Branstetter was right: Shriver, his assistants George Curry and Hal Hardin, and Metro Homicide Squad detectives Sherman Nickens, Bill Larkin and Ernest Castleman were all convinced of Powell’s guilt. They had started asking questions about Powell’s business dealings with the Gourley family; they had examined photos of the car in which Powell and Gourley had been traveling. They were asking questions about bullet angles and powder burns. Branstetter knew this much for certain—they were building a case against his client, Bill Powell.
By March of 1969, William E. “Big Bill” Powell had emerged as the major stockholder in Capitol Chevrolet. At the moment of Haynie Gourley’s death, Powell had automatically become the owner of the local Chevrolet franchise. The transfer of the franchise had been spelled out in an agreement between the two men detailing what would happen should either one of them die. The dealership itself, however—the business that sold not only Chevrolets, but other cars as well—remained in the hands of Powell (25 percent) and Gourley’s heirs (75 percent).
Days later, after Powell himself had been released from the hospital, he paid a condolence call on Gourley’s widow, Josephine. He did not, however, come alone; he had brought along representatives of General Motors, one of them a regional manager from Louisville. The Gourleys had hoped that their son, Billy, would eventually take over the family business. They had even offered to buy out Powell’s share of the business, in order to make room for their son. But it became clear that Powell did not intend to honor Haynie Gourley’s wishes. Instead, he listened as the General Motors honchos told Josephine Gourley that she should sell her share of the business to the man who owned the local franchise. She should sell, they said, to Bill Powell.
With her husband’s body hardly cold, Josephine Gourley was not about to sell the car dealership. Instead, she planned a meeting of the Capitol Chevrolet board of directors. Josephine Gourley herself was on the board; she planned to take the steps Haynie Gourley had wanted to take. She would see to it that Bill Powell was fired.
Before Josephine Gourley could take action, however, Powell rounded up his own investors and bought out the Gourley stock. Josephine Gourley would, reluctantly go along with the deal. The widow had been forced to face the reality that, even though she owned the Chevrolet dealership, she did not own the Chevrolet franchise. For an amount somewhere between $1 million and $2 million, Bill Powell had transformed himself into the owner and president of Capitol Chevrolet.
Shriver had been watching the Gourley-Powell maneuvering closely. He knew the criminal code backwards and forwards. He knew that there are three bases for conviction in a murder case: Motive. Opportunity. Means.
Shriver was convinced he had them all.
Nashville Banner, Mar. 19, 1969
Grand Jurors to Investigate Gourley Slaying
Seven persons have been subpoenaed to testify late this afternoon before the Davidson County Grand Jury as a “surprise” two-day probe is launched into the slaying last May of automobile dealer W. Haynie Gourley.
Shriver’s “surprise” probe didn’t surprise anybody. Several days before plunging into his new investigation, he had summoned Hal Hardin, then working as director of the Job Corps Center in St. Louis, to return to help him on the case. Hardin recalls Shriver telling him, “We’re getting ready to indict Bill Powell and I need your help.”
Back in Nashville, Hardin, along with a crowd of curiosity seekers, waited outside the seventh-floor courtroom in the Davidson County Courthouse. Shriver’s two-day probe turned into a week-long series of investigations. Thirty witnesses were called, including Josephine and Billy Gourley, as well as police officers, investigators and Capitol Chevrolet employees. Bill Powell did not testify—despite Branstetter’s request that he do so.
The boys in the press knew what was coming down. Larry Brinton was there for the Banner, and Jerry Thompson was on hand for The Tennessean. There was even the possibility that the press might know too much. Shriver caught Thompson talking to a member of the grand jury and had him subpoenaed. Only the intervention of Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler prevented Thompson from being forced to take the witness stand.
At noon on March 27, the Grand Jury indicted Bill Powell for first-degree murder. Shriver, the attorney general, was out of the courtroom when the “true bill,” the document containing the actual indictment, came in.
Criminal Court Judge Allen Cornelius set Powell’s bond at $5,000. At 3 p.m., Powell and Branstetter quietly appeared, posted the bail and then walked across the street to the Police Station where Powell was fingerprinted.
Nashville Banner, Mar. 21, 1969
17 Indicted in Chicago Riots
U.S. Names SDS, Yippie Big Wheels
Bill Powell was arraigned on Thursday, Apr. 5, before Cornelius on the charge of first-degree murder. Cornelius, only 48 but already white-haired and grandfatherly, was new to the Criminal Court bench. He had won the Democratic nomination for the new judgeship on May 23, 1968, the day before Haynie Gourley was murdered.
Cornelius was an inherently gentle man, referred to by some of his colleagues as being of great “judicial temperament.” When Powell, Branstetter and Shriver appeared before him, he listened quietly and, just as quietly, set a trial date of July 19. The case would be tried in his own court.
July 19 did not leave a lot of time for either the prosecution or the defense—just over three months. Shriver would have to subpoena witnesses and convince them to talk, before a jury, about disagreements at Capitol Chevrolet and about the Gourleys’ attempts before the murder to buy Bill Powell out of the business. He would also have to come up with evidence—and that meant finding a murder weapon. Shortly after the murder, John Barros, a former owner of a defunct auto-cleanup business on Murfreesboro Road, had turned a .38 handgun over to the police, but it had not even come close to passing the ballistics tests. What’s more, Barros had turned out to be a less-than-disinterested party; on the very day Bill Powell was indicted for first degree murder, Barros had filed a $250,000 civil suit against Powell for driving him out of business.
Shriver was convinced that he could provide a motive for the murder. He would merely have to point out the gleaming new Capitol Chevrolet building on Murfreesboro Road. He would only have to describe its parking lots, filled with new cars ready for sale at a tidy profit. And he knew that Powell had had plenty of chances to kill Haynie Gourley. Their 15-minute car ride on May 24, 1968, had given Powell ample opportunity to do the deed. What Shriver lacked was the means. That is to say, he lacked the weapon.
Without the murder weapon, his case would have to be based, entirely, on circumstantial evidence. With nothing but circumstantial evidence, he knew, he would have little chance of a conviction for Murder 1.
Nevertheless, Shriver had an ace up his sleeve. For months, the Gourleys’ family attorney, John Hooker Sr., had been asking questions and poking around for evidence. Now the Gourleys approached Shriver with an unconventional proposal: They suggested that Shriver name Hooker special prosecutor in the case.
In the spring of 1969, John Hooker Sr., attorney and orator, was 68 years old. Hooker had long been the golden-tongued grand old man. What’s more, the gift of oratory ran in the family. His son John Jr., widely considered to hold a crowd spellbound like nobody else, had already been defeated once for governor and was about to enter the race again.
Over the years, John Sr. had represented many of Nashville’s most prominent citizens and had garnered a reputation as one of the finest attorneys around. Over in Belle Meade, folks still talked about how he got Jean Wilson off when her husband had been stabbed with a 12-foot samurai sword. He’d fixed it so there weren’t even any charges brought. His fame had spread all the way to Washington. When Attorney General Robert Kennedy had needed someone to help Jim Neal prosecute Jimmy Hoffa and his associates for jury tampering, he had found his man in John Hooker Sr..
Hooker was a man of enormous appetites. His fellow attorneys claimed that, after a couple of glasses of Dewar’s scotch, Hooker still could argue more eloquently than any other attorney could argue stone cold sober.
When Shriver requested that Cornelius appoint Hooker special prosecutor, Branstetter protested. In a case where evidence was scanty, Branstetter knew, oratory might sway a jury. Hooker had already started talking to the press; having him in the courtroom, Branstetter knew, would only make trouble. Branstetter requested the court to enjoin Shriver from “permitting any attorney retained by any private citizen from intermeddling or continuing to intermeddle in the prosecution of this case.”
Cornelius turned down Branstetter’s motion. During the big trial, therefore, the attorneys for the prosecution would be Shriver, Hooker and Hardin. The defense team, meanwhile, would include Branstetter and whoever else was available from his office. His associate Carole Kilgore was a solid attorney, but he was no match for Hooker’s grandiloquence.
On April 17, for the first time since the day of Haynie Gourley’s murder, Bill Powell officially told his story. In a four-page deposition, Powell repeated his account of the car ride with Gourley, including the attack of the “negro” gunman and the shooting. In recounting his ordeal, however, Powell seemed to grow bitter. He had recreated the event for police officers, he said. He had answered all their questions.
“Although the Department has obviously been trying to make a case against me,” he said in the deposition, “members of the Department have repeatedly contacted me personally instead of contacting my attorney and going through him.... In all the time that the detectives approached me to ask questions or to seek my cooperation, they have never once gone to my attorney first...nor have they ever once advised me that I had the right to have an attorney present.”
Powell accused Shriver of conducting a trial in the newspapers, even though, to his understanding, even the district attorney had “viewed the evidence as inadequate.” When Shriver prepared to take the evidence to the Grand Jury, Powell said, he was “both shocked to learn that he was willing to present it and relieved at the thought that finally all the newspaper publicity would be ended, because I did not for a moment believe that the Grand Jury would actually indict me.”
For once, Bill Powell, football hero, was wrong.
Nashville Banner, March 28, 1969
He Had Been an Inspiration to Us All, Nixon Declares
President Nixon mourned the death of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower today, declaring he had been “an inspiration to us all, an inspiring leader and a great teacher.”
It was sometime in the late winter that Branstetter got a telephone call from John Tune. Tune was, for his own part, a respected attorney—he would go on to head the Nashville Bar Association. When he called, Branstetter listened.
Tune said that Branstetter needed another attorney on the case. Branstetter in turn told Tune, “I’ll take any help from anybody.” Tune recommended his father-in-law, one of the most colorful figures in Nashville. He recommended Jack Norman Sr., the grand old man of Printer’s Alley, a man who occupied a run as high as Hooker’s in the legal community, and whose oratory was just as pure and mighty.
The face-off of Jack Norman against John Hooker Sr. was a dream match. The press anticipated a no-holds-barred battle between the two golden throats of the Athens of the South. Reporters scrambled for precedents. Some said it would be like Bryan vs. Darrow, in the Scopes trial. Others suggested the analogy of Lee vs. Grant.
Hooker and Norman had tangled many times before. Both were Southern Democrats, but they were hardly cut from the same cloth. Hooker was long-winded and good-natured; Norman was long-winded and blunt, sometimes to the point of rudeness. Both men wielded uncommon power, but, while Hooker usually represented the denizens of Belle Meade, Norman went out of his way to defend the gambler or bookie. He and his wife lived in a Printer’s Alley apartment.
With Norman on his side, Branstetter had found the perfect antidote to John Hooker Sr. Norman was a master psychologist. He smoked the worst possible cigars—wicked, ugly stogies that encircled his head with clouds of blue smoke. One of his favorite courtroom tricks was to run a long straight pin down the center his cigar. Then, while the jury watched, mesmerized, he would light up. The ash would start to collect along the pin until, eventually, it would stretch out for several inches. Ignoring everything else in the courtroom, the jurors would watch Jack Norman’s cigar, just waiting, waiting for the ash to fall. He, too, could hold a crowd.
Nashville Banner, July 16, 1969
Apollo Reaches for Moon
Reaching for a dream, America’s Apollo 11 astronauts hurtled across the vastness of space today on a voyage of the ages, an attempt to land two men on the moon.
Jury selection in the trial of Bill Powell began on Monday, July 14. Right away, it became clear that Shriver and Hooker were prepared for a master chess game against Branstetter and Norman. Jurors were seated, then excused. Three times a 12-member panel was seated, only to be riddled with last-minute substitutions. Both sides seemed to take pains to make sure that few blacks were selected; in the end there were two blacks in the jury box. Shriver knew that if Powell were convicted, the jury would decide his punishment. Thus, Shriver questioned jurors about their attitude toward the death penalty, even though, as events later unfolded, he had no intention of asking for it.
The jury was finalized on July 16. Included in the panel were the likes of E.F. Carroll, a South Central Bell employee, and Robert Weaver, a driver for Industrial Towel and Uniform Service. Neither had served on a jury before, but both were confident of their ability to render justice. “We knew it was a big trial, about the biggest thing any of us had ever seen, but we felt like we’d been picked because they trusted us to make the right call,” Carroll said.
All three Nashville television stations asked Cornelius’ permission to televise the trial. He declined and also refused to allow still cameras in the courtroom. Instead, artists with sketch pads were stationed around the courtroom. Larry Brinton had conv publisher James G. Stahlman to publish in full, every day, the transcript of the proceedings.
The plan, Brinton recalls, was to hire a series of court reporters. “We ran them on 10-minute shifts and read their notes over the telephone. It had never been done before in Nashville.” Brinton thought he had scooped The Tennessean with such a plan—until he saw the rival paper on the morning after the first day of the trial. Stahlman had worked out a deal with Tennessean publisher Amon Evans. Both papers were running the transcripts. The word-for-word coverage would continue for the full 22 days of the trial.
Meanwhile, all three local network TV channels had stationed reporters and cameras outside the courtroom. Nashville, still a city of small-town friendliness and small-town suspicions, was being saturated with coverage of a spectacular big-city-style crime.
On July 21, the first day of testimony, the jurors filed in. Then came Norman and Hooker. “I suddenly had the feeling that I should pay real close attention,” recalls Hardin, who was then in his 20s. “I would probably never see anything like this again. Two giants of the legal profession going toe-to-toe. It was like being part of history. And here I was right in the middle of it. It was like heaven on earth.”
Shriver presented an initial list of 27 witnesses, including Josephine and Billy Gourley, various Capitol Chevrolet employees, officers from the homicide squad, doctors from Vanderbilt Hospital, and Sam Fleming, president of Third National Bank. Fleming had been summoned to help sort out various business and financial dealings involving Powell, Gourley and Capitol Chevrolet.
Branstetter and Norman, for the defense, presented a preliminary slate of 15 witnesses, many of them character witnesses, including former Vanderbilt football players Pete Holt and Frank Gorrell. Shriver expected a long trial, “maybe five weeks”; Branstetter predicted the whole affair would be over in two-and-a-half weeks.
Nashville Tennessean, July 20, 1969
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the only surviving brother of the Kennedy clan, had a second narrow brush with death early yesterday, when a car he was driving slipped off a bridge into a deep saltwater pond on Chappaquiddick Island at Martha’s Vineyard.
Branstetter and Norman had a simple strategy. They would create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. Early on, they had decided that Powell would be his own best witness. He would, in fact, be the lead witness for the defense. “We never gave a thought to not putting him on the stand,” Branstetter explains. “We knew the statistics, that a jury is more likely to convict someone who won’t tell his own story.”
Shriver and Hooker had a much tougher problem. They had to destroy every trace of reasonable doubt. They could put members of the Gourley family on the stand. They could question GM officials, who could suggest Powell’s possible motivations for shooting Gourley. They could summon Capitol employees who could testify about what might have happened during Powell and Gourley’s deadly 15-minute drive. But words such as “might” and “may” suggested reasonable doubts. The prosecution needed somebody who had actually seen something. One week before the trial was to begin, they were certain they had found him.
After a week of testimony from Josephine and Billy Gourley, from General Motors official Tom Davis and from Fleming, Shriver rested the prosecution’s case by calling Walter Lee Davis to the stand.
Just a week before the trial, investigators had discovered Davis, a 54-year-old explosives expert, working for Sheco Construction Co. During the week of May 24, 1968, Sheco employees had been working on Elm Hill Pike, near a huge Kroger warehouse. Davis testified that at 11 a.m. on May 24, he had seen a black Chevrolet containing two men stop by the side of Elm Hill Pike. Davis said that he then heard four gunshots and saw the car pull away. No negro man. No robbery. No struggle. Just two men and a series of shots. Davis’ testimony was the first big surprise in the trial.
Nashville Tennessean, July 21, 1969
Man Walks on the Moon
Armstrong-9 steps to History
Norman and Branstetter, however, were saving a surprise for Davis. They had subpoenaed three of his coworkers, who testified that Davis had told various stories about what he had seen May 24, 1968. Davis’ foreman, Thomas C. Swann, produced work orders suggesting that Davis hadn’t been anywhere near the murder site at the corner of Elm Hill Pike and Spence Lane. Norman even questioned Davis’ hearing and eyesight.
The prosecution’s case had been based on the testimonies of three witnesses: Josephine and Billy Gourley (with support from Sam Fleming), and Walter Lee Davis. The case, as Powell had maintained in his April 17 deposition, was flimsy at best. Branstetter and Norman were so sure of acquittal that they requested a directed verdict of not guilty. Cornelius, however, overruled them, leaving the defense to present its case. Branstetter and Norman proceeded confidently; they now had the opportunity to go past simply strewing the seeds of reasonable doubt. Now they would seek vindication.
On the morning of Monday, July 28, Bill Powell took the stand for the first time. Tall, impassive, dressed in a dark suit, Powell did not look like a man who feared for his life. Instead, for four hours, he repeated the story he’d told detectives ever since the day of the murder. He told about the “negro” gunman. He even admitted his mistake in picking a suspect from the police lineup. Powell insisted he had never been sure that James Gerald Wingard was the murderer. Instead, he said, the murderer was someone who “looks a lot like James Wingard.” He did not flinch when questions were raised about his relationship with the Gourleys. He said Haynie Gourley had been “a second father” to him. He insisted that his relationship with Billy had been untroubled. Powell testified that he had been willing to leave Capitol Chevrolet so that Billy Gourley could take over the firm.
In that regard, Powell’s testimony agreed with Josephine Gourley’s and thus, ironically, seemed to undercut the prosecution’s case. Shriver was attempting to paint a picture of a man so greedy, so power-hungry that he murdered his partner. Yet both the defendant and the victim’s widow testified that Powell was willing to leave the firm to make room for Haynie Gourley’s son. The prosecution was left with little room for cross-examination. Hooker merely questioned why Powell—6 feet, 3 inches tall, 215 pounds and a former Vanderbilt football star—didn’t get out and fight the assailant. Powell’s response was, “I just don’t know.”
Nashville Tennessean, July 29, 1969
Moon Rock Shows Sign of Volcano
Several researchers analyzing the material from Apollo 11 astronauts brought back from the moon said yesterday there is strong evidence the moon is volcanic.
On July 30, the defense called Charles M. Wilson, retired crime lab director for the state of Wisconsin. After examining the coat Powell was wearing on May 24, 1968, Wilson dramatically testified that Powell could not have shot himself, undercutting a key claim of the prosecution. Wilson’s testimony, if unchallenged, would exonerate Powell.
When court adjourned that day, Shriver, Hardin and Hooker headed for Hooker’s Williamson County farm, where they spent the evening plotting their strategies, licking their wounds and drowning their sorrow in Dewar’s. After Shriver departed, Hardin recalls, Hooker turned to him and said, “We’ve got to find a rebuttal to Wilson.”
Hardin looked wearily at Hooker.
Hooker told him, “You’ve got to go to Wisconsin.”
Right there, at 10 p.m., with court due to convene early the next morning, Hooker called Berry Field and chartered a plane for Hardin. He had to find someone to discredit Wilson. Hardin, who was afraid of flying, fortified himself with swigs of Dewar’s before taking off. At 5 a.m. the next morning, “smelling like a distillery,” Hardin met the sheriff of Madison County, Wis., hoping he might offer some advice.
The risk immediately paid off. Both the sheriff and his chief deputy told Hardin they considered Wilson incompetent. They agreed to fly directly to Nashville to give their testimony in court.
When court opened at 9 a.m., Hardin arrived, unshaven, still smelling like a distillery, but escorting two police officers from Wisconsin. Both testified that they regularly sent their evidence to an FBI lab in order to avoid Wilson’s work. Jack Norman flew into a fury.
Hardin had done his job. The defense sent Charles M. Wilson back to Wisconsin on a bus.
Despite the Wilson miscue, it was clear that Shriver’s evidence was making little impression on the jurors. To make matters worse, Hooker seemed strangely listless in his questioning. Even after the trial started, however, Shriver had kept investigators working around the clock. At long last, the effort paid off.
On Sunday night, July 27, Metro Patrolman Robert C. Jackson was at a fish fry when he heard someone mention a gun. The next day, on a tip, Jackson placed a call to Jim Reed Chevrolet, where an anonymous source gave him the name of Henry A. Lewis.
Lewis was a construction worker who lived in Lebanon. Sometime in September of 1968, while collecting soft-drink bottles in the 1100 block of Elm Hill Pike, he had stumbled across a .38 Smith and Wesson pistol. The gun was sticking nose-down in the mud, and its barrel was rusted. Along with the pistol, Lewis said, he also found four spent shells, which he threw away. Ballistics experts had already testified that Gourley was murdered with a Smith & Wesson or with a gun of similar make.
Jackson found Lewis and retrieved the gun. For the next few days, investigators searched for the spent shells. When they asked Lewis why he had not produced the gun sooner, he said that he hadn’t wanted to get “involved.”
Now Shriver possibly had his gun—maybe. But what could he do with it? Because the barrel was so rusted, ballistics tests could only state that the bullets that killed Haynie Gourley “could have” come from the pistol. Worse yet for Shriver, the state had already rested its case. Prosecutors could not introduce the gun as evidence.
Cornelius flatly refused to allow the gun to be presented in court—but he did allow the prosecution to subpoena eight new witnesses for rebuttal. Among them were Col. Billy Huffines of the Tennessee Air National Guard and Bob Frensley, then a Louisville, Ky., car dealer who had once served as Powell’s assistant at Capitol.
Shriver’s men had traced the gun’s serial numbers to Huffines, who testified that it was an army surplus weapon. He had given it, he said, to Frensley.
Frensley, in turn, testified that several months before Haynie Gourley was murdered, Powell had asked Frensley to provide him with a handgun for “defensive” purposes. Frensley testified that he had given the Smith & Wesson to Powell. After Gourley’s murder, Frensley said, he had asked Powell three times what had happened to the pistol. Each time, he said, Powell gave him a different answer. The last time, Frensley said, Powell told him the gun had been stolen.
Despite vigorous cross-examination from Norman, who tried to prove that Frensley had trafficked in stolen weapons, the momentum of the trial seemed to have turned. Headlines in both papers decreed that the critical link had been found between Powell and the gun. Larry Brinton, for one, thought the prosecution had made its case.
When the defense put Powell back on the stand to rebut Frensley’s testimony, his appearance remained calm, and his manner remained deliberate. Powell denied that he’d ever asked Frensley for a pistol. He denied ever owning a pistol. When Hooker asked him directly if he’d shot Haynie Gourley, Powell answered with a blunt “no sirree.” No one had actually seen Powell with a pistol. It was a case of one man’s word against another’s. The testimony was ended. The jury would have to decide whom to believe.
When the defense and the prosecution entered court for their closing arguments on Saturday morning, Aug. 2, the press was clearly expecting the grand finale of the trial—a display of matchless oratory from Hooker and Norman. Shriver would give the first closing argument for the state; Norman would close for the defense. Then Hooker was scheduled to give a closing rebuttal for the prosecution.
Shriver spoke for nearly an hour, reviewing all the evidence, outlining all the reasons why Powell might well have wanted Gourley dead. He reminded the jury that Powell had automatically taken over the Chevrolet franchise upon Gourley’s death. He recreated his version of the fatal car ride and detailed Haynie Gourley’s hopes for his son. “I’ve never seen anything like this for motive,” Shriver said.
Cornelius called a five-minute recess.
During those five minutes, Branstetter and Norman offered Powell a daring proposal. Branstetter told Powell that he and Norman did not feel the prosecution had made a strong case. Nevertheless, they told Powell, “If John Hooker gives his closing, who knows what might happen? He’ll wave Haynie Gourley’s bloody clothes around and get the jury all upset and anything can happen. If we don’t give a closing argument, John Hooker won’t be able to rebut it. Let’s just send it to the jury.”
Norman and Branstetter were calculating that the jury would be skeptical about the gun and about Frensley’s testimony. Powell . There would be no closing argument for the defense. There would also, as a result, be no closing argument from Hooker.
Cornelius called the court to order, and Norman rose to his feet. Puffing out his chest, he declared in his most stentorian tones, “Your honor, charge the jury.”
Hooker had been practicing his closing speech for a week, repeating it over and over for his wife. Now he would never be able to present it to the jury. Shriver had delivered a thorough, technical catalogue of the evidence, but the prosecution had expected Hooker’s soaring, emotional oratory to tie up the case.
The jury in the case of The State vs. William E. Powell had been sequestered in Metro’s old City Jail for 22 days. Their meals had been served to them by jail inmates, and they had been kept away from all newspapers and television (with the exception of the evening of July 16, when they had returned to the courtroom to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon). Their daily exercise had consisted of a walk along First Avenue near the river and, occasionally, a stroll across the Shelby Street Bridge.
Locked away one last time, they began their deliberations at 4 p.m. on Aug. 2. In a hallway outside the courtroom, reporter Larry Brinton saw Bill Powell’s son, 14-year-old Billy, standing by himself. Brinton says he assured the youngster that everything would be OK, even though he didn’t believe his own words.
In the jury room, members were making short work of the prosecution’s case. E.F. Carroll, who had been chosen foreman, had kept detailed notes on the testimony. The jurors began with a fundamental question: Did Bill Powell murder Haynie Gourley? All 12 answered quickly: no. After that, one juror recalled, everything else seemed secondary.
Twenty-six years later, it is clear the jurors simply did not buy the prosecution’s case. Davis’ testimony was inconsistent; the gun had showed up too late. “We simply didn’t believe Frensley,” one juror said after the trial.
As for Powell, there was unanimous praise for both his bearing and for his testimony. He had like an innocent man.
The jury came back at 8:45 p.m., much earlier than anyone had anticipated. When one of the jurors, Mrs. W.P. Chastain, looked directly at Powell and smiled, he knew he was a free man.
“I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it,” Hardin remembers.
When Carroll read the “not guilty” verdict, cheers erupted in the courtroom. A look of relief spread across Powell’s face. Branstetter started crying.
Shriver and Hooker seemed resigned to the verdict; Branstetter had little to say, but Norman exploded to the press, protesting that the entire case had been “conceived in meanness and conducted in cruelty.” He had denied himself a closing argument. Nevertheless, he had gotten the last word.
It has been almost three decades since Bill Powell was found innocent of the murder of W. Haynie Gourley. But interest in the case has never died. To this day, some prominent Nashville attorneys maintain that justice was not served. Even some members of the jury remain uncertain about their decision.
“Sure, I’ve had doubts. I’ve wondered if we made the right decision,” says Robert Weaver, one of the jurors. “My own business partner even asked me how we could be so stupid. My answer is that he wasn’t there. We had to weigh the evidence. We could have sentenced this man to death, and I thought—and still think—that’s an awesome responsibility.”
The Gourley murder case has never been officially closed. No other suspect, however, has been arrested. Several years ago, when police officers burned some evidence from the trial, they asked Brinton to witness the fire. Brinton declined the offer. “That’s old history,” he said.
Members of the Gourley family and the Powell family have continued to live, not far apart, in Belle Meade, sometimes attending the same social functions, sometimes keeping the same friends—but always keeping their silence. During the Powell trial, both Josephine and Billy Gourley testified for the state, but no one in the Gourley family has ever publicly accused Bill Powell of murdering Haynie Gourley. Because they declined to be interviewed for this story, it is impossible to know how they felt when Powell, the man accused of killing their husband and father, went free. Because the Powell family refuses to talk, and also declined to be interviewed for this story, it is hard to imagine how they feel, walking through a party, fully aware that many people in the room will connect them, however vaguely, with a murder case, an unsolved mystery, a tale of suspicion, greed and blood.
Unfortunately, there are instances in which time does not heal everything.
A few words about the principals in the case:
Josephine Gourley still lives in Belle Meade. Her son, Billy, has run automobile dealerships in Ashland City and near Rivergate Mall in Nashville. He now lives and works in Asheville, N.C.
Bill Powell still runs Capitol Chevrolet. In 1972, Capitol expanded by adding Honda and GEO franchises. In August 1995, sale of the Honda franchise was pending because, Powell said to the media, the company “simply needed more money.” Years after the trial, Powell and his wife, Helen, divorced. She is now deceased. Powell is remarried.
Metro Police investigator Sherman Nickens is retired from the Metro Police Department. For several years he worked as a salesman at Capitol Chevrolet. He now runs an investigation agency.
Tom Shriver served as district attorney into the 1980s, when he ran for—and was elected to—the criminal court bench.
Hal Hardin served as U.S. Attorney for several years and as a local judge and is now in private practice.
Cecil Branstetter is still in private practice. His office is next door to Hardin’s.
Jack Norman continued to live in Printer’s Alley until his death in 1992. In his later years, he wrote a newspaper column about Nashville history and a book, The Nashville I Knew.
John Hooker Sr. never got over being denied the chance to give his closing argument in the Powell trial. He was known, countless times after the trial, to recite it wistfully for friends. On Dec. 23, 1970, Hooker and his wife had attended a Christmas party. Upon returning home, he decided to honor a long-standing request from his friend, and co-counsel, Hal Hardin. Before going to bed, he autographed a picture as a gift for Hardin. That night, Hooker died in his sleep.
Bob Holladay’s account of the Haynie Gourley investigation and trial is based upon interviews with police officers, attorneys and reporters who were close to the case. He also consulted trial transcripts, which appeared in both daily papers. No members of the Gourley or Powell families contributed to his research.