Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Who Murdered Little Miss Sunbeam's Killer?

The following account is taken from columns that originally appeared in Shoalanda Speaks December 19-24, 2009.

It was 1942 when Quality Bakers of America, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, introduced a brand of white bread that it dubbed Sunbeam. In an era before rapid transit, an era that was also shrouded in war time restrictions, Quality Bakers decided to franchise its product. In Alabama, the Flowers Bakery Company produced Sunbeam Bread, a product whose recipe quickly made it a favorite of the American consumer.

Just as in today's tight economy, marketing could make or break a product in the 1940s, and Quality Bakers hired illustrator Ellen Segner to create a brand icon that would distinguish it from other products, most importantly Sunbeam Appliances. Segner, who died in 2001, was noted at the time for her semi-erotic pin ups, but is remembered today for her creations of Dick and Jane, as well as Little Miss Sunbeam.

While sitting in a New York park, Segner saw a young blond girl playing. She immediately took out her sketch pad and created what was to become one of the most recognizable faces of the late 20th century; however, before Segner could approach the child to offer her a formal sitting, the little girl had disappeared. Segner then used other models to finish various portraits that came to represent Sunbeam Bread in advertising across most of the United States.

After the war, Sunbeam Bread continued to grow in popularity, and one franchiser hit upon the idea of selecting a real-life Little Miss Sunbeam to represent their area. The first Miss Sunbeam, Patty Michaels, was chosen in the New York area in 1955, but finding public appearances too tiring, left the Sunbeam company after only two years. Michaels went on to appear in The Sound of Music and enjoy a moderately successful recording career.

With the success of this live mascot in one geographic area, other franchisers followed suit. Flowers Bakery held its contest for a Miss Sunbeam in the late 1950s, and thus Marie Burns of the Central community in western Lauderdale County became the Southeast's Little Miss Sunbeam, enjoying the title's fame well into her adulthood when, in the mid-1980s, she was killed by impaired driver Wilburn May Jr.

Those who knew Wilburn May Jr. universally called him "Junior." They also called him other names that colorfully described his usual state of inebriation. It wasn't unusual to hear customers of the Central Heights Pharmacy tell each other to watch out on the way home--Junior May was on the road.

In the early 1980s, May was involved in a drunken crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Apparently no charges were filed in that crash, and Junior May continued to drive a modified vehicle--still drinking and now under the influence of narcotic pain killers.

It came as no surprise when a a few years later a drunken May hit another car head on; it was a shock to the community that the dead passenger in the car was Marie Burns, a former Little Miss Sunbeam and the mother of four children. It was also a shock when May was again allowed to plead to a lesser charge than manslaughter and was given only a slap on the wrist in Marie Burns' death.

Divorced, May still had family who attempted to help him recover from his addictions, but to no avail. Now, May was not only an addict himself, but had also taken on the mantle of local drug dealer. In 1998, his drug dealings caught up with him when a family member of one of his customers reported him. Junior May yet again cheated justice--this time due to his condition. Apparently the state had no wish to house a paraplegic whose body was ravaged by a lifetime of alcohol and other drug abuse. Wilburn May Jr. was given probation and allowed to return to the Central community where he again set up shop selling drugs and some said fencing stolen merchandise.

For the next three years, May operated out of a hospital bed set up in the living room of his small house on County Road 15. This is where family members
found the body of Wilburn May Jr. lying in his hospital bed on the morning of February 26, 2001; a single gunshot wound to the chest was circled in dried blood. May, 45 years old and a known drug dealer, had many enemies--some of them due to his role in the death of the former Little Miss Sunbeam Marie Burns, but after a four month investigation, the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department had found every lead to be a dead end. By the end of June 2001, the reward in the case totalled $16,000.00; but the first real break came from a Madison County law enforcement officer.

Donald Wayne Darling II was seventeen years old and lived less than a mile from Wilburn May Jr. on County Road 15 in the Central community. Now Darling was an inmate at Three Springs School, a Madison alternative correctional facility for juveniles where he had been held since May 1. According to authorities, Darling told a roommate he had killed May. When Lauderdale Investigator Jr. Witt visited with Darling at the school in mid-July, the teenager denied the charges, but admitted he had bought drugs from May twice in the past. Witt was convinced that Donald Wayne Darling had killed Junior May and secured a search warrant for his Central Heights home. Investigators were secretive concerning their finds, but immediately requested a warrant for Darling's arrest.

Taking Darling into custody the next day, Lauderdale County assigned Doug Evans to prosecute the teenager. The Assistant District Attorney immediately requested an upgrade in Darling's charges--now Donald Wayne Darling was accused of capital murder in the killing of Wilburn May Jr. Evans based the new charges on accusations that Darling had also stolen drugs at the time of the killing, a killing the prosecution believed to be the result of a gang initiation. Darling defense attorneys offered a different scenario, but District Judge Deborah Bell Paseur now ordered Donald Wayne Darling held without bail.

Darling spent almost two years in the Lauderdale County Detention Center awaiting trial, while defense attorneys Jenny Behel and Chris Connolly filed various motions and maintained that Jr. Witt had illegally questioned Darling, setting the stage for what was to become a lengthy battle of words--not the least of which were prosecutorial misconduct. In the mean time, was the real killer still out there?

The State's case against Donald Wayne Darling II hit roadblocks from the beginning. Darling himself claimed he had bragged of murdering Wilburn May Jr. in order to impress gang members with whom he was incarcerated in Madison. The day before Jr Witt had traveled to Madison to interview Darling, the teenager had attempted to hang himself and was under the influence of powerful anti psychotic drugs during questioning. Of the items taken from Darling's home by Witt, some proved to belong to Darling's father. Prosecutors in the case failed to allow the Darling defense to inspect the items, a fact that drew the ire of Judge Mike Suttle who had been assigned to hear the capital murder case.

As the trial began, the case against Darling began to unravel even further. The defense proved May's front door was kicked down by an individual with a larger foot than the teenager's and none of the defendant's shoes matched the sole pattern as the prosecution initially claimed. The defense also produced witnesses that several individuals, including May's ex-wife, had recently threatened the murdered drug dealer.

As the trial progressed, Chris Connolly asked for a mistrial based on the possibility of prosecution witness Torry Harrison being released early for his testimony. The witness had testified previously in several other trials in return for special considerations. Also, a main point of contention in the Darling trial was the witness being allowed to wear street clothes to the proceedings (We will inject here that even those who are incarcerated should be allowed some dignity--as long as the jury was advised that the witness was currently serving time in the Colbert County Jail, his clothing should have made little difference). Further, Junior May's heavily peroxided blond daughter Nancy Stevenson testified that she believed her father had also been beaten and that his axe had been turned over to Lauderdale deputies, but was not introduced into evidence. If May had been beaten, as his daughter claimed, this was another element that clashed with Darling's initial and supposedly drug-induced confession.

After two days of deliberation, the jury announced it was deadlocked, and Judge Mike Suttle declared a mistrial. Darling was returned to the Detention Center to await a second trial, but his defense attorneys had other plans--they immediately filed charges of prosecutorial misconduct by the Lauderdale County District Attorney's office.

Judge Mike Suttle took the charges of prosecutorial misconduct in the Donald Darling murder trial so seriously that he ordered a jury trial in the matter; however, the Lauderdale District Attorney's office appealed the ruling and won. Now, Darling was to face a second trial for the murder of Wilburn May Jr.

By May 2004, Darling had been released on bond, and Lauderdale District Attorney Steve Graham had resigned. Graham's successor, then Republican Billy Jackson, knew the Darling family socially and recused his office from the second trial. Even Judge Suttle's role was questioned due to his announced support of Darling's defense attorney Chris Connolly, Jackson's Democratic opponent in the upcoming election. Suttle refused to step down and presided over Darling's second trial, now moved to Decatur.

During the trial, the defense team introduced evidence that included an alibi for Darling and accusations against one of May's ex-wives as well as a known drug associate who had not been seen since May's murder. On July 23, 2004, a Morgan County jury found Donald Wayne Darling II not guilty of the murder of Junior May. Suttle then authorized protection for the Darling family as they left the courthouse due to alleged threats from the May family. Darling himself spoke of his relief to have an unencumbered future.

What did Donald Darling do with his freedom? Less than four months later, the now 20 year-old Darling was accused of attempting to break into a condom vending machine at a Central Heights mini-mart. He pleaded innocent to the misdemeanor charge. Two years later, Darling was arrested for breaking into a convenience store to steal cigarettes; a short time later an intoxicated Darling was arrested by an observant off-duty deputy immediately after breaking into a truck in the Central community.

Do Darling's post acquittal criminal actions indicate he was in reality guilty of killing Junior May? They certainly indicate Donald Wayne Darling II placed little value on his freedom. As for who did murder Little Miss Sunbeam's killer, one of the strangest cases in Shoals crime history is still officially open.