When Koerper was killed, people still cared

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 30, 2009

Is 35 years a long time?

In some ways, yes.

It was 35 years ago that Arthur Lee Stevenson went to the kitchen of the old Warren County Jail, got a butcher knife worn almost to a sliver through decades of use, walked to the office and stabbed A.H. “Mr. Holly” Koerper at least 26 times. The late Dr. Charles Ramsay, a dentist and morning coffee regular of Mr. Holly discovered the carnage.

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Stevenson had unlocked the cell of a female inmate and the two of them fled to a Farmer Street home where “Poppa” Little of the Vicksburg Police Department found them an hour or two later.

As his 72-year-old victim’s blood was still being mopped up, Stevenson, then a 23-year-old trusty serving a year for his role in a holdup, was walked back through the same door of his escape, read his rights and placed in a cell.

Though now being considered for release, he hasn’t been free since that Saturday morning, July 6, 1974.

A reason the killing seems so long ago is that the public no longer reacts to brutality the same way.

The murder took place a year before I was hired to work as a reporter in Vicksburg, but I remember the palpable sense of shock.

The community was already reeling because only days earlier three firefighters had been killed and others seriously injured in an explosion while responding to a gas leak. It was, and remains, the worst tragedy in the history of the Vicksburg Fire Department.

As news spread through town that the jailer had been stabbed to death, the aura of tragedy was overwhelming. It was a more casual era. Paul Barrett was sheriff and might have had five deputies and two cars. Koerper was on duty alone. As a trusty, Stevenson was often out of his cell and had access to the kitchen and other jail areas.

Not surprisingly, there was an impetus for a rush to judgment. The indictment and first trial for Stevenson took place within weeks. But jurors put the brakes on prosecutors’ attempt to move Stevenson right up to Death Row at Parchman. They declined to return a verdict. A second trial took place weeks later that did result in a conviction and an order that Stevenson be executed in the state’s gas chamber.

The state Supreme Court reversed that conviction, deciding that the people of Warren County were, in fact, too emotional about the case and that a retrial to ensure fairness outside the county would be necessary.

The third trial was held in Tupelo and also resulted in a conviction and a death sentence and yet another reversal by the state Supreme Court.

As a fourth trial was to begin in Rolling Fork in 1978, Stevenson entered a guilty plea to avoid what might have been a third death sentence. As part of his plea, he agreed not to seek parole. However, almost 20 years later, the Supreme Court invalidated that agreement because a life-without-parole sentence didn’t exist at the time. A fourth conviction came in 1997 in Warren County but with jurors selected and bused in from Lincoln County. Because he was previously sentenced to life, that’s the most severe punishment that could be imposed on Stevenson. And it was — with parole eligibility for a man, now 58, who has spent almost two-thirds of his life in prison.

Whether due to generations of more and more graphic movies and TV police shows or the advent of video games or any number of other factors, killings today as horrific as Mr. Holly’s death attract nowhere near the notice. Cable channels one-up each other in exploiting selected cases for ratings, but there is no sense of alarm in Vicksburg when, as last week, a 25-year-old is shot to death. Instead, bloggers on The Vicksburg Post’s Web site voice what seems to be only passing concern that such an incident took place.

While I can’t remember specifically, my guess is the courtroom in Warren County had plenty of spectators for Stevenson’s trials. In that same courtroom last week, a man, said to be upset about one of the aforementioned video games, was tried for standing in a neighborhood and repeatedly firing a rifle, randomly killing another man, a woman and her unborn child. The audience contained a few family members.

Whether 35 years is a long time or not, some things have changed.

Life is not as respected as it was. It’s not progress when a killing in our community gets no more than passing notice.