Bessemer bank robbery massacre: After more than 10 years will justice be served?

William Merriweather Jr
William Merriweather Jr | Bessemer Bank Robbery


More than 10 years after two women were killed and two others seriously wounded in a bank robbery in Bessemer, four families are still waiting for justice.

William Merriweather Jr., was quickly captured and charged in the May 2007 robbery. He was wounded by deputies as he left the bank with a hostage.

But a decade later he has not been prosecuted for his crimes. A hearing this week, however, could bring his federal death penalty case to an end.

"Is this justice for me, no!," said Anita Gordon, one of the women wounded during the robbery.

On May 14, 2007, Merriweather walked into the Wachovia Bank branch on Ninth Avenue in Bessemer. Within minutes, police say he killed bank tellers Eva Lovelady Hudson and Sheila McWaine Prevo.

He also shot Gordon and one other teller, Latoya Shaniece Freeman, who both survived. He was arrested outside the bank after he tripped from a curb. The bank manager Merriweather took as a hostage escaped when Merriweather fell, allowing sheriff's deputies to shoot and wound Merriweather.

Wednesday' hearing comes after years of legal wrangling, all hinging on the question of whether the 41-year-old Merriweather is competent to stand trial. He was ruled competent in two previous competency hearings, but the issue came up again when a government expert changed his opinion in 2015.

Court records show if he is found competent, he will enter a guilty plea and will be immediately sentenced by U.S. District Judge David Proctor.

"Merriweather has been found competent previously, [and] we were ready to go to court," Gordon said. "Some unforeseen craziness happened on our end so here we are again... It's been 10 years."

Gordon said she believes if Merriweather is found competent and enters a plea, he will spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole. She said she was originally told by prosecutors they would seek the death penalty.

"To come with this offer 10 years later is a big disappointment," she said. "We could've had this nightmare over years ago, so justice--no. Closure, maybe."

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said that a federal defendant charged in a death penalty case can plead guilty and receive the death penalty. He said the guilty plea, in exchange for a life sentence without parole, is a "frequent resolution... in cases in which the defendant is seriously mentally ill."

Dunham also said there are multiple kinds of competency that are considered during death penalty cases. The competency to stand trial is fluid -- someone can be declared competent during a crime or during arraignment, but later be declared incompetent. That is common with degenerative brain diseases, Dunham said.

One of Merriweather's attorneys, Richard Jaffe, filed a document showing Merriweather's intent to plead guilty to the charges if found competent. Jaffe did not respond to a request for comment.

In the years of legal turmoil that followed the May 2007 robbery, families of the two deceased victims and the two surviving victims have not felt justice.

"We're just disgusted that it's taking so long," Hudson's mother, Lou Annie Lovelady, said previously.

In a 2015 interview with Lovelady said she still has nightmares and would like to see some closure in the case for them and her daughter's son. "I'm wanting for it to get over," she said then.

Competent or incompetent?

Two months after the robbery, Merriweather entered a not guilty plea in federal court on his five charges of bank robbery by force or violence, and committing a violent crime with a gun. He faces state charges of first-degree escape, first-degree kidnapping, two counts of capital murder during the course of a robbery, two counts of attempted murder, and second-degree assault. He also faces a civil wrongful death suit, filed by Hudson's brother David Lovelady.

It is unclear as to how the state charges will be resolved if Merriweather enters a plea in federal court.

In 2007, Merriweather was ordered to a federal facility where doctors could determine if he was competent to stand trial and if he suffered from any mental illnesses. Two years later, his lawyers asked Proctor to rule Merriweather incompetent.

In 2011, Proctor set a date for the competency hearing, but weeks later had to order the Shelby County Jail to force feed and force bathe Merriweather. Later that year, a hearing was held.

Merriweather was ruled competent to stand trial in 2013 after a two-year delay in the ruling, which denied the 2009 motion from Merriweather's attorneys. Proctor set Merriweather's trial date for January 13, 2014.

"As to this issue, the two sides are in utter disagreement about defendant's (Merriweather's) mental state, and the court has no medical or psychiatric training," Proctor wrote in his 74-page ruling."There are no easy answers."

Come February 2014, jury selection in the trial was pushed back, and a projected April trial date was again delayed. Proctor set another competency hearing for July 2014.

In October of 2014 the judge again declared Merriweather was competent to stand trial. Another trial date was set-- this time for April 20, 2015.

The case was again delayed in March 2015 after a government expert changed his opinion from years before and said Merriweather was not competent to stand trial. The expert said Merriweather's condition had recently deteriorated, but he could have been sane before December 2014, when the expert examined him. Merriweather was ordered to a federal mental health facility to determine when, and if, he would be able to stand trial.

According to a trial memorandum filed by the U.S. Attorneys Office in the case, here's what prosecutors believed happened that day:

Also in the bank (besides employees) at the time were Central Lighting Services employees Mario Moore and Angel Sanchez, who were there to work on the bank's lights.

According to Mr. Moore, moments after he and Mr. Sanchez arrived at the bank, he noticed a man, later identified as William Merriweather, Jr., wearing a green baseball-style cap, white shirt, tie, and slacks, walking in the direction of the bank down an embankment on a dirt path from a wooded area near a cell tower.

Mr. Moore stated that he held the door open for Merriweather as they walked inside the branch. Upon entering, Mr. Moore and Mr. Sanchez immediately proceeded to Myron Gooding's desk to discuss the work they were to perform.

When Merriweather entered the bank, he proceeded in the general direction of the customer waiting line in front of the teller windows, holding a cell phone to his ear as though he were engaged in a conversation. Shortly thereafter, and without saying a word, Merriweather walked up behind Tracey Oliver, brandished a 9mm pistol, and shot two tellers, Eva Hudson and Sheila Prevo, in the head. Ms. Prevo died instantly; Ms. Hudson died shortly thereafter .... Moving steadily to his right, Merriweather eventually got behind the teller line, grabbed Latoya Freeman, and proceeded down the inside of the teller line toward the drive-thru window, looking for the vault and demanding the vault key and money.

Merriweather and Ms. Freeman eventually returned to the teller line, stopping a few feet from the vault. As Merriweather stood there repeating his demands, Anita Gordon stood up, produced a set of keys, and attempted to hand them to him. When she did, Merriweather shot her in the face at point-blank range. He then turned his gun on Ms. Freeman, who was standing close by with her hands held in a defensive posture, and fired one shot at her head. The bullet was deflected when it struck Ms. Freeman in the hand, taking off part of her right index finger.

Though seriously wounded, both women survived Merriweather's attack. With two tellers dead and two others in immediate need of medical assistance, Merriweather turned his attention from killing to stealing, as he walked past the teller windows, grabbing approximately $11,255 in cash and stuffing it inside a plastic bag.

With the money in hand, Merriweather then attempted to leave the bank. However, as he approached the front door, Chris Chappell (a bank customer) immediately confronted him. Mr. Chappell had darted out the door when the shooting began, and had run to the side of his car, where he removed a pistol from his pocket and awaited Merriweather's exit. Also waiting for Merriweather to emerge from the bank were several deputy sheriffs, including Deputies Rhea and Sorenson, who had just arrived on the scene and taken up covered positions in the parking lot. Seeing Mr. Chappell and the deputies, the defendant immediately moved away from the door and returned to the lobby.

He then walked over to the right side of the bank, where he found Myron Gooding, the manager, crouched down on the floor behind his desk. Merriweather grabbed Mr. Gooding and forced him to the front door. The two then emerged from the bank, with Merriweather using Mr. Gooding as a human shield.

Holding his gun to Mr. Gooding's head, Merriweather forced his hostage into the parking lot, turned left, and began to inch his way down the side of the building heading in the direction from which he had originally come. After getting to the northwest corner of the building, the defendant tripped, allowing Mr. Gooding to separate from him and run away.

Then, as Merriweather attempted to regain his footing, Deputy Rhea fired one shot, striking the defendant in the leg and groin area and putting him on the ground. Merriweather was immediately handcuffed and searched. Deputies took from the defendant's pockets a cell phone, a box cutter, and a large amount of U.S. currency. The bag containing other money Merriweather had stolen from the bank was found a short distance from where he fell.

Also recovered in close proximity were other items belonging to the defendant, including his pistol (which had been kicked several feet away by police), the green ball cap he had been wearing, a pair of sunglasses, and a tracking device Merriweather had inadvertently taken from the bank. As the defendant was being secured, police noticed that Merriweather had wrapped electrical tape around portions of his shoes."


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