Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Radney's case caught Harper Lee's eye

Attorney Tom Radney died Sunday at age 79. In this 2006 photo, he is shown with a transcript of his most famous case.
Attorney Tom Radney died Sunday at age 79. In this 2006 photo, he is shown with a transcript of his most famous case.
ALEXANDER CITY -- How good a lawyer was Tom Radney?
Well, for starters, he once convinced jurors to return a slap-on-the-wrist verdict for a man who shot a minister to death at a funeral home in front of 300 witnesses.
Radney, who died Sunday at the age of 79 and will be buried here today, considered it to be the highlight of his long, successful courtroom career.
Few would argue with that personal assessment because the case drew national attention with newspaper reporters, magazine writers and TV crews flocking to this little east Alabama town to cover every bizarre aspect they could find.
One who gave it special attention was Harper Lee of "To Kill a Mockingbird" fame. She virtually lived in Alex City for several months, going over documents provided by Radney.
Most folks knew who she was, why she was at the Horseshoe Bend Motel and wondered if she might, one day, use the celebrated case to write another Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
Radney was involved in many important cases during his half-century career, but none could compare with the trial of Robert Louis Burns, a cross-country trucker who pumped three slugs into the Rev. Will Maxwell on June 18, 1977.
District Attorney Tom Young called it "cold-blooded murder" and described it as "nothing but a one-man lynch mob."
With 300 potential witnesses to tell the jury that Burns did the deed and that they saw it firsthand, there was little Radney could do but claim Burns was "temporarily insane." He made that crystal clear in his opening statement.
"We admit he shot him, we admit he killed him, we admit he shot him three times wherever Mr. Young says he shot him -- in the head, the stomach or wherever he says he shot him," Radney told the jurors.
The case had all the elements of a theatrical or TV movie-of-the week. Included were five mysterious deaths all connected to Maxwell, including two wives, a brother, a nephew and the final victim -- a teenage girl who was raised by Maxwell's third wife.
For good measure, "voodoo" was thrown into the mix with some in the area claiming Maxwell dabbled in the occult.
Maxwell, with a fan in his right hand and a handkerchief in his left hand, had been sitting with his wife in a pew not far from Shirley Ann Ellington's open casket. Suddenly, Burns jumped up onto a nearby pew and, without saying a word, shot him three times.Insurance payments linked to four of the five deaths found their way to Maxwell who, as beneficiary, used part of it to pay Radney for services rendered as his attorney.
Radney got so much money by representing Maxwell that it helped him build a very nice law office near Alex City's courthouse. Some people began calling it the "Maxwell House."
Shortly after Shirley Ann's death, Maxwell approached Radney to represent him in case he was charged in her death. Radney refused.
Instead, Radney defended Burns in the killing of Maxwell, whom he had represented four times in connection with the four other deaths. He ran it past the Alabama State Bar first and got permission.
Shirley Ann was a teenager whose body was found under the wheel of a jacked-up car owned by the controversial preacher.
Authorities believe the killer suffocated or strangled the girl and then placed her head under the left wheel to make it look as though she was changing the tire and it fell on her neck.
Nobody fell for that scenario, according to investigators, and those who had been trying to nail Maxwell for any kind of involvement in the four other cases figured they'd finally get him in Shirley Ann's death.
Several months later, Jim Earnhardt and I covered Burns' trial. Jim, a local resident, had just joined the staff of the Alexander City Outlook, where I was the editor.
Not long after Shirley Ann's body was discovered in a rural area of neighboring Coosa County, I was welcomed into Maxwell's house, where he insisted he was innocent and his enemies were out to get him.
"I feel they're at me, and it's not true," he said. "I know they're talking about me. If Shirley hadn't been in my car, there would have been no suspicions."
I couldn't resist asking Maxwell to show me his "voodoo room" and, flashing a big smile, he took me down the hall to a bedroom where no steaming kettle or decapitated frogs greeted us.
"See," he said, "Some people just like to make trouble for me. I don't know why, but they just do."I sent Jim to cover Shirley Ann's funeral, and the last thing he expected was to write about a homicide at a funeral home.
"There is nothing quite so chilling as a gunshot," he wrote, detailing the shooting and the screaming mourners who rushed out of the funeral home. "Nothing sounds quite so deadly and so final."
The two of us took turns covering the Burns' trial and were able to see two courtroom masters at work with Radney and Young verbally sparring like a couple of prizefighters.
At one point, Radney shouted at the district attorney to "shut up and sit down." He got an admonishment from the judge after a similar response from Young and later apologized for his remark.
When voodoo became part of the trial things really got interesting, especially when there was a comment about "black pepper and a chicken hanging in a pecan tree, upside down with the blood coming out."
In the end, it took the jurors about 20 minutes to find Burns "not guilty by reason of insanity."
The judge packed him off to Bryce Hospital for a mental examination, but he was back home about a month later and resumed his truck route.
As for Harper Lee, well, she eventually dropped her research and went home to Monroeville, opting not to turn the Maxwell case into something similar to "In Cold Blood," the popular book written by childhood friend Truman Capote.
A couple of years ago, Radney gave me a bound copy of the 436-page trial transcript. He felt that the Maxwell case was still a best-seller in the making.
Too bad he wasn't able to use his persuasive powers on John Grisham.


  1. This could likely be a Best Seller! I was around the age of five at the time Rev. Maxwell was murdered at my parent's funeral home. An unforgettable experience; not certain if we'll ever have all the answers surrounding the complete ordeal.

  2. He's my uncle R.L.Burns no matter what but from my under standing I think why make just a book make more of it like a movie an let me star as my uncle since we look alike.I'm Shane burns.