JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A former Jacksonville police detective who investigated a high-profile racially motivated killing in 1964 was recognized Wednesday in a virtual Historical Impact Celebration.
During the event, held via Zoom, local and national dignitaries and elected officials honored Sgt. Cannie Lee Cody’s impact on the Duval County community.
Sheriff Mike Williams, Mayor Lenny Curry and U.S. Rep. John Rutherford shared kind words for the veteran and former detective, who investigated the murder of Johnnie Mae Chappell.
In a dark time for the River City, Chappell was gunned down on March 23, 1964, because of the color of her skin.
The mother of 10 was shot by someone in a passing car as she walked along New Kings Road during a period of race riots in Jacksonville.
Investigators at the time said four white men drove by civil unrest downtown, and someone in the car said, “Let’s get a (expletive).”
The case of Chappell’s death went unsolved for months until two Cody and fellow detective Donald Coleman Sr. interrogated a young local named Wayne Chessman about the murder.
A grand jury later indicted four men -- Chessman, J.W. Rich, Elmer Kato, and James Davis -- on charges of first-degree murder. Only one of them was tried or served any prison time. Rich, the suspected shooter, was convicted of manslaughter and served three years in prison. The charges against Kato, Chessman and Davis were later dropped.
Detectives working the investigation, including Cody, claimed they lost their jobs due to their complaints regarding police racism and how the case was handled.
“Here is a Black woman gunned down in cold blood on a dark, lonely highway, and none of them cared. We lived in a racist city and a racist town run by racist people,” Cody said.
In 2005, Cody and Shelton Chappell, the victim’s youngest son, filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville and the men in the car; the suit was dismissed but Jeb Bush asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to re-open the murder investigation.
Cody published a book called The 14th Denial detailing the events that went on in the midst of the volatile times surrounding the civil rights movement.
The overview says, “two police detectives solved one of our nation’s worst hate crimes and paid for it with their careers.”