The Georgia of good and evil: Miss Savannah murder trial reveals much about this Southern society
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 22 March 2005)

SAVANNAH, Ga. - In the civic imagination of Savannah, the drama of Sharron Nicole ("Nikki") Redmond has played out like an updated version of Frankie and Johnny, the song about Frankie killing the man who done her wrong. At the end, however, the stories diverge. Frankie went to jail for murder. Nikki Redmond's future, decided last week by a jury, will be happier.

I attended her trial as a student of American culture who believes societies reveal themselves through their criminal courts. In Savannah, that rule carries special meaning. The fame of this quiet, elegantly designed city of 137,000 has been enormously magnified by the homicide that John Berendt explored in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a stylish work of fictionalized reporting that Clint Eastwood adapted as a Kevin Spacey-John Cusack movie. In the last 10 years, Berendt's best-seller has taken such firm root here that Savannah people call it simply The Book, as in "a tour of places mentioned in The Book."

The big Savannah news story of this season, called "The Miss Savannah Murder" by the newspapers, somewhat resembles Berendt's narrative. In both cases everyone agreed who fired the gun, and in both cases self-defence was claimed as justification. Moreover, both victims were considered scoundrels. In the Miss Savannah case, the dead man was Kevin Shorter, a former running back for Fort Valley State University, more recently occupied in a vague way as a music producer. He had a steady girlfriend, Rachel Hall, a nurse, to whom he had given an engagement ring. But Nikki also claimed to be his fiancee. A friend of Kevin's testified that she was mistaken. Rachel, he said, was Kevin's intended; Nikki was just something on the side.

Most of 2003 was a happy time for Nikki. She graduated with honours from Spelman College in Atlanta, a much-admired liberal arts college for black women, completing in just three years her double major in English and pre-med. Back home in Savannah she taught high school and began an MA program in education. She came second in the Miss Savannah beauty pageant but inherited the title when the original winner became Miss Georgia. Nikki was also doing some rap singing and making a demo. At age 21 she was what the Savannah Morning News called a "role model."

One element disturbed her life, as she said later; someone was stalking her. When she consulted Kevin, he helped her buy, legally, a gigantic elephant-stopper of a handgun, a .40-calibre Taurus semi-automatic pistol.

It was for protection, but various prosecution witnesses said she took to waving it around. In the presence of one witness she apparently threatened to use it on Kevin.

On Dec. 16, 2003, Nikki went to Rachel Hall's place for a girl-to-girl talk. When Kevin heard the two women were together he showed up, angry. By Nikki's account he insulted her, saying to Rachel that "She wasn't good for nothing but head and pussy." Turning to Nikki (again, in her testimony), he said, "Bitch, I'm gonna kill you." She claims that she felt threatened, jumped in her white Mitsubishi, grabbed her gun, fired a warning shot in his direction, and drove off.

But the bullet hit an artery in a buttock, and Kevin died three days later. Nikki was charged with two kinds of murder, one of which could have resulted in life without parole, as well as misuse of a weapon. The state claimed she murdered Kevin in a jealous rage, but Nikki testified that she acted only to protect herself and didn't intend even to hit Kevin, much less kill him. Her lawyers argued that the bullet ricocheted off a car door before striking the victim, a point the prosecution disputed. Nikki made a pathetic and apparently impressive witness and it took the jury (a mix of ages, races and sexes) just nine hours to find her not guilty of anything.

During the trial, both her hair colour and her costume changed. At first she was a reddish blond who cut a neat little figure (she stands three inches below five feet) in shiny tailored pantsuits. Toward the end her hair returned to dark brown and she wrapped herself in what the Savannah press called a shawl. It was, actually, a tallis, the fringed black-and-white prayer shawl worn by Jews. She was still clutching it around her when the verdict was announced and both she and her mother moaned, "Thank you, Jesus."

For a Canadian visitor, there were notable differences in courtroom style. Everyone in the courtroom stood whenever the jury entered, but rose only once, first thing in the morning, for the judge. That's the reverse of the Canadian system; it implies that in the United States the jury is supreme. Like counsel in most American courts, Georgia lawyers often approach the bench to discuss points of law out of the jury's hearing. Each time that happened in Georgia v. Redmond, the judge reached beneath his desk and switched on music so that no word would accidentally reach the jury. Each time it was Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Spectators in the courtroom wore badges, colour-coded to indicate their status. Friends and relatives of the accused wore blue and sat in the second row; those connected with the victim wore lavender and sat in the fourth.

It was a little like a wedding, or maybe a funeral. People wore their Sunday best, including stilettos for the women and white suits for the men. In the hall each morning there were many hugs of greeting, including several between friends of the victim and friends of the accused. Even Nikki and Rachel, the former co-fiancees, hugged and air-kissed when they met.

Every homicide has many victims, some less important than others. In this case, an unintended casualty is the Miss Savannah Pageant. When Nikki was charged, the people running the event decided not to choose a 2004 Miss Savannah. "Our potential contestants and eventual winner would be under intense scrutiny and pressure," the board of directors announced. This year the pageant will be revived, but the winner will be crowned Miss First City, a reference to Savannah's place in Georgia history. Fate and a .40-calibre semi-automatic have determined that Nikki Redmond will likely be the last Miss Savannah.

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