The NRA’s Murder Mystery


Shortly before dark on the evening of April 17, 1963, Robert J. Dowlut went looking for a gun inside the city cemetery in South Bend, Indiana. Making his way through the headstones, he stopped in front of the abandoned Studebaker family mausoleum. He knelt by the front right corner of the blocky gray monument and lifted a stone from the damp ground. Then, as one of the two police detectives accompanying him later testified, the 17-year-old “used his hands and did some digging.” He unearthed a revolver and ammunition. As Dowlut would later tell a judge, the detectives then took the gun, “jammed it in my hand,” and photographed him. “They were real happy.”

Two days earlier, a woman named Anna Marie Yocum had been murdered in her South Bend home. An autopsy determined she had been shot three times, once through the chest and twice in the back, likely at close range as she’d either fled or fallen down the stairs from her apartment. Two .45-caliber bullets had pierced her heart.

Less than an hour after her body was found, two police officers had gone to Dowlut’s home and asked him to help locate Yocum’s 16-year-old daughter, whom he’d dated. After a short, fruitless search, the officers took him to police headquarters. Though Dowlut was booked as a material witness, investigators soon came to suspect that the tall, polite Army private, home on a two-week leave, had killed Yocum. After a day of intense questioning, Dowlut allegedly broke down and confessed in detail to the murder as well as to a botched robbery attempt earlier the same night in which the owner of a pawnshop was seriously wounded.

At first, Dowlut insisted that he’d thrown his gun into the St. Joseph River, but the detectives kept pushing. One officer, Dowlut later testified, “just grabbed me by the shirt, told me that I was a son of a bitch, and that I’d better show them where the gun was really at.” Not long afterward, Dowlut told his interrogators that he’d lied: “I said the gun was in the city cemetery.” According to one detective, Dowlut reeled off the weapon’s serial number from memory.

The gun Dowlut unearthed less than a half mile from the murder scene was a Webley Mark VI, a British-made six-shot military revolver commonly sold in the United States after World War II. The Indiana State Police Laboratory determined that it had fired a bullet recovered from Yocum’s body, one retrieved from her apartment, and another found at the pawnshop.

The following morning, Dowlut was charged with first-degree murder. A year and a half later, a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. Before the judge handed down a life sentence, he asked the defendant if there was any reason why he shouldn’t be put away. Dowlut replied, “I am not guilty.” A day later, the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City registered Dowlut, now 19, as prisoner number 33848.

Less than six years later, Robert Dowlut would be a free man—his murder conviction thrown out by the Indiana Supreme Court because of a flawed police investigation. The court ordered a new trial, but one never took place. Dowlut would return to the Army and go on to earn college and law degrees. Then he would embark on a career that put him at the epicenter of the movement to transform America’s gun laws.

TODAY, THE 68-YEAR-OLD DOWLUT is the general counsel of the National Rifle Association. As the NRA’s top lawyer, he has been a key architect of the gun lobby’s campaign to define the legal interpretation of the Second Amendment. He helped oversee the NRA’s effort to strike down Chicago’s handgun ban in the 2010 Supreme Court case McDonald v. Chicago, and he is the longtime secretary of the organization’s Civil Rights Defense Fund, which has spent millions assisting gun owners in court and sponsoring gun rights researchers. Dowlut’s journal articles have been cited by federal judges and are quoted by pro-gun activists. Chris W. Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s lobbying operation, has praised him as “a longtime distinguished Second Amendment scholar.” Dowlut’s behind-the-scenes legal work may have done as much to tighten the NRA’s grip on gun policy as its blustery talking heads and provocative PR campaigns.

Among Second Amendment lawyers and scholars, Dowlut is admired for his intellect and calm. “He is a really reliable and exhaustive source for legal input on the issue,” says Robert Levy, the chairman of the Cato Institute’s board of directors and one of the lawyers behind the landmark 2008 Heller case, in which the Supreme Court affirmed an individual right to own guns. Dowlut is “a human encyclopedia” on the subject of state gun laws, says David T. Hardy, a lawyer and prominent pro-gun writer who has known him “longer than I can remember.” (Dowlut and current NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre attended Hardy’s wedding in 1982.)

Yet Dowlut maintains an extremely low profile. “Bob is a man who does his job and doesn’t go looking for attention,” Hardy says. He rarely speaks in public and does not appear on NRA radio or video programming. While his wife, a lawyer and genealogist, maintains a website with postings on family history, gun rights, and an NRA law seminar she helped organize, Dowlut himself is conspicuously absent from those pages. He made a rare appearance on the site in a photo—removed a couple of years ago—titled “The Fantasy Supreme Court.” The group portrait shows a smiling Dowlut, his wife, and a who’s who of top Second Amendment lawyers and scholars at the NRA annual meeting in 2010. It is captioned: “These are the men who, over a span of more than 30 years, built the foundation that restored the Second Amendment as an individual right.”

The story of how Dowlut walked away from a murder conviction and rose through the ranks of the NRA has never been told publicly. It begins with the transcript of his murder trial, part of a 2,100-page court file obtained by Mother Jones that includes detailed closed-door testimony not heard by the jury. Despite a series of phone calls and detailed written requests seeking comment for this article, Dowlut did not respond, nor did his wife. It is unclear whether he has ever disclosed his past to any colleagues—Hardy told me he had “no idea” about the murder conviction—or to his employer; LaPierre and other NRA leaders also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Beyond the puzzle of a half-century-old crime is the question of what drove Dowlut to become one of the brains behind the modern gun rights movement, with its insistence that ready access to guns prevents, rather than provokes, violent crime. Court documents, Dowlut’s own writings, and interviews with people knowledgeable about his career offer clues to his journey. It spans from the liberated Nazi slave-labor camp where he was born and his troubled youth in Indiana to the chambers of the US Supreme Court—and the front lines of the battle over the right to bear arms.

Original Article (Long Read)

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