- James Bonard Fowler was not prosecuted until many decades later
- He admitted to shooting unarmed activist Jimmie Lee Jackson
- The killing galvanized the civil rights movement
(CNN)James Bonard Fowler, 81, died proclaiming his innocence.
Even when he finally admitted that he was the white lawman who killed an unarmed civil rights activist, he claimed self-defense.
"My conscience is clear," he said in a 2005 interview.
Fowler shot 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson at a restaurant in Marion, Alabama, on the night of February 18, 1965. Martin Luther King Jr. eulogized Jackson as a "martyred hero" and his death galvanized protests -- including "Bloody Sunday" -- that helped pave the way for the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
But Fowler was never prosecuted and Jackson's murder became one of many civil rights cases that remained unresolved.
That was until Michael Jackson, the first black district attorney in Selma, read Fowler's admission in the Anniston Star newspaper and reopened the investigation.
The former Alabama state trooper was indicted for murder and eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He served less than six months behind bars and was released in 2011.
He continued to live a life of virtual anonymity, much as he had done for the four decades after Jackson's death.
Fowler joined the Army and earned combat honors in Vietnam. His family pointed to his marriage to a woman from Burma as evidence that Fowler was not a racist.
He stayed out of the spotlight after this year's release of the film "Selma," which depicts his shooting of Jackson -- though it doesn't name Fowler -- and during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Selma to Montgomery march.
He died quietly over the weekend, the Geneva County Sheriff's Office confirmed.
Jim Fleming, the reporter to whom Fowler admitted killing Jackson, said Fowler had been ailing for a long time.
Michael Jackson, the district attorney, said Fowler's was an egregious case of delayed justice. "This closes a sad chapter of Alabama history," he said Thursday.
On that night in 1965, a peaceful civil rights march ended in Marion with a melee after the lights went out. Police officers beat back marchers and Jimmie Lee Jackson ran for safety into Mack's restaurant.
Another state trooper slammed him against a cigarette vending machine and Fowler shot him twice in the belly. Jackson died eight days later in the hospital.
Fowler's identity was not well known until murder charges were brought against him in 2007.
He entered a guilty plea to the lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.
Jackson, the prosecutor, recalled Fowler in court.
"He apologized, but it could have been a better apology," Jackson said. "He was looking at the judge, not the family.
"There was a part of him that was defiant to the end."