End of Watch: The Death of Walton County Sheriff Robert Gatlin

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End of Watch: November 12, 1942

Eighty years ago today…

Maybe it was his strong, steady appearance. Maybe it was because he was a newcomer and the community felt that was needed. Regardless of the reason, newly elected Sheriff Robert Gatlin assumed office on Tuesday morning, January 7, 1941.

Thursday, November 12, 1942, Walton County, Florida: With his new deputy, Curtis Miller, Sheriff Gatlin opened an investigation into an alleged moonshining operation deep in the woods southeast of town. At 1:00 PM, Sheriff Gatlin and Deputy Miller found and confronted the suspect, Alfred Snipes, at his home. They had with them a search warrant for his property under suspicion of possessing illegal whiskey. A struggle followed. Within a few minutes, Deputy Miller, shot once and beaten severely in the head, escaped from the house while the lifeless body of Sheriff Robert Gatlin lay in the home of the suspect, two bullet holes from his own gun in his chest. The suspect, who had been shot four times, went into hiding. The warrant remained on the table in the house, next to the dead sheriff. Deputy Miller soon found help. He was taken to the hospital and listed in grave condition.

With the sheriff dead and the only deputy out of commission, the county had no law enforcement. So, Governor Holland sent J. J. Gilliam, the director of the Florida Department of Public Safety to oversee the coverage of the law enforcement duties in Walton County. He assembled ten state troopers from neighboring counties to maintain law and order in Walton.

When a crisis strikes a close-knit community like Defuniak Springs, the residents often feel helpless, resulting in volunteers showing up. Members of the road patrol, the Home Defense Unit from nearby Marianna, the Jackson County Home Guard, and citizens showed up to help. But to help what? In this case, there was plenty. The county’s order was being maintained, but who would search for the murderer? Volunteers would. Within a matter of a few hours, one hundred fifty men volunteered to form search squads under the supervision of Highway Patrol Lt. Reid Clifton. If the 39-year-old suspect was anywhere in the area, he would be found.

Did Lt. Clifton have to worry about renegades, revenge killings, or lynch mobs? Of course he did! Like any human, these men wanted the suspect to pay for murdering their friend. But…Lt. Clifton reported that the search squads were very methodical, were not overzealous or emotional. They broke the county into search patterns and proceeded at a reasonable, meticulous search. Thirty-six hours later, about 11:00 PM on Friday night, Alfred Snipes was taken into custody at a friend’s house. Among those making the arrest were Highway Patrolman W. T. Stevens and Okaloosa County Sheriff Isle Enzor. The members of the squads were commended, thanked, and disbanded. The suspect was taken to the Florida State Prison at Raiford, 260 miles away – for his own safety.

Saturday, November 14, 1942, Defuniak Springs, Florida: The funeral for Sheriff Gatlin took place. He was buried in Magnolia Cemetery, commonly called Defuniak Spring Cemetery. The mournful community attended and paid their respects to a man who gave all for his community.

Monday, November 16, 1942, Defuniak Springs, Florida: Four days after Sheriff Gatlin was slain, Governor Holland named Theron Aubrey McDonald as the new sheriff, and things kept rolling along…

Friday, January 22, 1943, Defuniak Springs, Florida: The trial was the biggest thing to happen in the community since the death of their beloved sheriff. It was the murder trial of his killer, Alfred Snipes. The courtroom was filled to capacity with family, friends, officers, and interested citizens. But Judge Fabisinski was no rookie. Everyone in the room had no doubt that the judge was in charge of the court, and no one wanted to be the one to challenge that.

After the jury was seated, the opening statements began. State Attorney J. Edwin Holsberry went first for the prosecution. He told the story how the sheriff and his deputy went to the home of the defendant, armed with a search warrant. An argument turned into a confrontation which resulted in the sheriff’s gun being taken by the defendant who shot the lawman. He then beat Deputy Miller mercilessly, nearly killing him. Then he fled. Mr. Holsberry described him as a criminal who was illegally making and selling alcohol, then resisted the lawmen, then killed the sheriff and assaulted the deputy before fleeing.

Colonel W. W. Flournoy, Snipes’ court appointed defense attorney, stepped up. He described a completely different scene. He maintained that the two officers came to Snipe’s house, confronted him and began assaulting him. As a matter of fact, Snipes still bore four bullet wounds that he received at the hands of Gatlin and Miller. He said that Snipes acted out of self-defense.

Witnesses came, testified and left all day. After lunch, the time seemed to drag by, each attorney trying to make his side look better. Finally, both sides rested. After closing statements from both sides, the judge charged the jury and sent them to the jury room for deliberation. It was after dark before they began.

But they didn’t take long. An hour and twenty minutes later, they had a verdict[1]. There was a hush over the courtroom as the verdict was read.

“We the jury find the defendant, Alfred Snipes, guilty of first-degree murder, without recommendation of mercy.”

“Without recommendation of mercy” means that the judge must have a good reason not to sentence the defendant to the death penalty. The judge thanked the jury, and they were dismissed. He then ordered that the defendant appear before him the next morning.

As everyone expected, Judge Fabisinski wasted no time in sentencing Snipes to the death penalty, meaning he had a future meeting with Old Sparky, the state of Florida’s electric chair. Snipes made no comment. He knew there would be an automatic appeal. Even so, it couldn’t have made him happy.

Friday, March 10, 1944, Tallahassee, Florida: They all made the 120-mile trip to the Florida Supreme Court building. State Attorney J. Edwin Holsberry, Attorney General J. Tom Watson, and Assistant Attorney General John C. Wynn represented the State of Florida and Colonel Flournoy was there to represent the defendant.

Not only did none of the justices find any evidence that supported either first-degree or second-degree murder, they felt that the verdict was reached by prejudice. Justice Roy Chapman prepared an opinion that would have ordered a judgement of conviction for manslaughter. However, the majority, led by Chief Justice Rivers Buford, agreed that the trial should be remanded for further proceedings. In other words, Snipes was given a retrial[2].

The retrial, although not producing what the prosecution and most of the town wanted, found the defendant guilty of Manslaughter. When that conviction was appealed, however, the state supreme court, in a split 4-3 decision, reversed the conviction, setting Alfred Snipes free[3]. He moved to Pensacola.

[1] Pensacola News Journal, January 23, 1943, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/image/352819539/?terms=%22Alfred%20Snipes%22&match=1 acquired November 12, 2022

[2] High Court Reverses Murder Conviction, The Miami Herald, March 11, 1944, page 2 https://www.newspapers.com/image/617360325/?terms=%22Alfred%20Snipes%22&match=1 acquired November 12, 2022

[3] Alfred Snipes Given Freedom by High Court. Pensacola News Journal, June 16, 1945, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/image/352836897/?terms=%22Alfred%20Snipes%22&match=1. Acquired November 12, 2022

By Mike Simmons


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