Lee Edward Culbreath (Murder of)

Lee Edward Culbreath, a fourteen-year-old Black youth, was shot to death on December 5, 1965, in Portland (Ashley County) by a white man who, during his trial, was accused of belonging to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Lee Edward Culbreath and another boy were riding a bicycle together when Culbreath got off at a café and his friend continued toward another store to look at a Christmas tree. As Culbreath stood outside the café, three shots were fired from a black truck, with one striking and fatally wounding him. An Arkansas state trooper stopped the truck shortly afterward and arrested Ed Vail of Hamburg (Ashley County), a forty-year-old mechanic, and his brother James, a barber.

Both brothers were charged with first-degree murder and jailed without bail. Ed Vail underwent a psychological examination at the Arkansas State Hospital and was found to be “without psychosis.” The state sought the death penalty when his trial began on February 24, 1966, with prosecutor Frank Wynne of Fordyce (Dallas County) opening by saying that Vail shot Culbreath “for no reason other than meanness in his heart.” Vail’s defense attorney held that his client was extremely drunk on the day of the shooting and “there was no premeditation—that it was a pure and simple accident brought on by a man dethroned of his reason.”

Testimony in the trial showed that Ed Vail and his wife had been heading into town to buy a Christmas tree when they encountered James Vail and his family. Ed Vail’s wife got into the other car, while Ed and James Vail began drinking heavily, sharing five cans of beer and a bottle of whiskey. Ed Vail testified that he was too drunk to know if he had even been in Portland on the day of the murder.

State Trooper Frank Mitchell testified that Vail pointed to a .22-caliber pistol in the truck when it was pulled over and said it was “what I killed that S.O.B. with. I shot him six times.” An expert from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) confirmed that the pistol had fired the fatal shots. James Vail testified that his brother fired his pistol from the truck “but…he didn’t believe Ed Vail knew what he was doing.”

The issue of Ku Klux Klan membership came up when State Police detective Don Wall testified that James Vail had told him he was a KKK member, which Vail denied when he took the stand in the trial. Prosecutor Wynne asked Ed Vail if he was a Klan member; Vail said he was not, though he admitted he had attended a KKK rally.

A jury of one Black and eleven white men deliberated for two hours before returning a verdict of guilty of second-degree murder against Ed Vail on February 26, 1966, with a recommendation of a twenty-one-year sentence, which was granted. James Vail’s charge was reduced to accessory-after-the-fact, and that was dismissed in October 1966. Ed Vail appealed to Governor Winthrop Rockefeller for clemency in December 1969, which was denied. However, he later did leave prison (although when and under what circumstances is unknown). He died in 2010 and is buried in Crossroads Cemetery in Crossett (Ashley County).

At some point, “an eligible entity” referred the Lee Edward Culbreath murder case to the U.S. Department of Justice for consideration under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which became law in 2008 and was amended in 2016 and allowed for federal prosecution of cold cases from the civil rights era. In a May 7, 2019, Justice Department “Notice to Close File,” the department ended its investigation, writing that “a federal prosecution of anyone responsible for Culbreath’s death is not possible. All identifiable subjects involved in his death are deceased, and our review did not identify any additional participants or witnesses to his murder.”

For additional information:
Clark, Janice. “Accused Killer Gets 21 Years; Tells Hamburg Jury He Was Drunk.” Arkansas Gazette, February 27, 1966, pp. 1A, 2A.

———. “Victim Not Troublemaker, Marshal Says.” Arkansas Gazette, February 26, 1966, p. 2A.

“Clemency Refused for Walker; Aide Say [sic] Timing Bad.” Arkansas Gazette, December 23, 1969, p. 14A.

“Lee Edward Culbreath—Notice to Close File.” United States Department of Justice. https://www.justice.gov/crt/case-document/lee-edward-culbreath-notice-close-file (accessed December 14, 2021).

“Murder Trial Set Feb. 17.” El Dorado Times, January 29, 1966, p. 5.

“Negro Slain in Cold Blood, Jury Is Told at Hamburg Trial.” Arkansas Gazette, February 25, 1966, p. 3A.

“Prosecutor Holds Youth Killed Out of ‘Meanness.’” Arkansas Democrat, February 25, 1966, p. 2A.

“Trial Is Thursday in Race Slaying.” Arkansas Gazette, February 20, 1966, p. 5C.

“Two Brothers Face Charges in Boy’s Death.” Arkansas Gazette, December 7, 1965, p. 1B.

“Vail Ruled Guilty in Negro Death.” Arkansas Democrat, February 27, 1966, p. 4A.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System

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