Almost 44 years after shooting and stabbing to death his 14-year-old best friend, Melvin Knox took the stand in a Tarrant County courtroom Monday and asked the judge for probation for a crime he committed as “a child.”
Dressed in a black suit, the 59-year-old gray-haired man recounted how, at age 15, he had been playing around with a shotgun he didn’t realize was loaded when he pointed it at Donald Rodgers — and pulled the trigger.
He recalled going to get a knife out of his kitchen drawer after shooting Donald in the face, but testified he doesn’t remember stabbing his friend seven times, nor staging his own house to make it appear as if Donald had been killed by an intruder.
“My mind was going berserk, I guess, sir,” Knox testified. “I was the only one there so I know I had to be the one who did it.”
Knox was initially arrested in the case, but later released. He testified that he kept his word to a former defense attorney not to talk about what happened that afternoon of Aug. 7, 1973. Instead, he said he turned to drugs and alcohol, hoping they would help him forget.
“It was on my mind all the time,” Knox said. “I thought the drugs would stop it but I don’t think it did.”
Since confessing more than a year ago to a Fort Worth cold case investigator, Knox said he has felt some of the burden had been lifted. Last month, he pleaded guilty to murder in the case.
During his sentencing hearing Monday, Knox asked state District Judge Wayne Salvant to grant him probation, proudly pointing out his role as a caregiver to his sick mother, father and sister and the help he provides to those in need in the community.
Salvant later scoffed at Knox’s request, noting the six convictions the man had picked up since Donald’s death.
“Do you think you deserve probation for all you’ve done?” Salvant asked. “You committed a heinous crime, you tried to cover it up, then in the past 40 years, you’ve basically been a criminal. Let’s just face it, you have. So probation is not even an issue, not for this court.”
Salvant then told Knox he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
“No matter what I do today [it’s not] going to bring Mr. Rodgers back, but that family deserves justice,” Salvant said. “They do. They’ve waited a long time for it.”
‘We weren’t out for vengeance’
Donald’s two older sisters and a nephew born after his death responded with tears.
“Whatever the judge sentenced, I was going to be comfortable with. I had to do that because it was going to be closure for us either way,” explained Carolyn Rodgers, the oldest sibling of the family.
“But when the judge gave the sentence, it was was more than I could handle. We weren’t thinking it was going to be that much, but we appreciate that it is.”
Another sister, Cynthia Brooks, commended the judge.
“This is not a happy occasion,” Brooks said. “We weren’t out for vengeance. We just wanted some justice. We wanted some closure.”
Ray Hall Jr., Knox’s defense attorney, said Knox will appeal the sentence.
“I’m disappointed in the number of years that he gave him,” Hall said after the hearing. “This happened when he was young. ... I feel like 40 is steep for something that he did when he was 15 years old.”
During Monday’s hearing, Brooks described for the judge how her little brother was the “epitome of sweet,” a kind and helpful child who was his father’s best buddy.
On the day of his death, Donald had gone to play basketball at Knox’s nearby home.
Knox had previously told police that night that Donald had gone inside to use the restroom.
Minutes later, Knox claimed he heard glass shatter at the back of the house and then a gunshot after he ran toward the back of his home. Frightened, he told police he ran to an uncle’s house two miles away.
Early on, police suspected the crime scene had been staged. A large rock had been thrown through the home’s sliding-glass doors. A nearby television set was toppled on the floor — though no glass from the broken glass door lay beneath it.
Knox was arrested days after Donald’s death but the case was dismissed in January 1974 due to “insufficient evidence.”
Brooks said her brother’s death changed the dynamics of the family, devastating her parents and bringing to an end the once joyous Christmas celebrations the family once shared.
“I just no longer wanted to come home,” testified Brooks, who had been away at college when her brother was killed.
Donald’s parents both have since passed away.
A cold case reopened
Mike McCormack, a former Fort Worth cold case detective, testified Monday that he began looking into Donald’s case in May 2015 after receiving an inquiry from Jeff Rodgers Jr.
McCormack said he believed it was a “good case” but was informed by the Tarrant County district attorney’s office that new information would have to be found to move the case forward.
Afters months of working on the case, McCormack obtained two new pieces of evidence: a statement from Knox’s own mother that her son had confessed to shooting Donald and, subsequently, an admission from Knox himself.
McCormack said in an interview after Knox’s December 2015 arrest that Knox gave various reasons for the shooting, including that the boys had both been playing with guns, but eventually admitting that Donald never had a gun.
He also told the detective that he stabbed Donald because he feared he might still be alive and “was worried he was going to tell on him.”
On Monday, Knox admitted on the stand under questioning by prosecutor Matt Smid that Donald “didn’t do nothing to me to make me do it.”
Though it was a bolt-action shotgun that prosecutors indicated Knox would have had to have known was loaded, Knox insisted he didn’t and couldn’t explain why he pulled the trigger.
“I was a child,” Knox said. “I don’t know what was going through my head.”
Nor could he explain why he didn’t seek help for his friend.
“I made a dumb decision,” Knox testified.
During his own testimony, Jeff Rodgers Jr., Donald’s older brother, praised McCormack for his diligence.
“Because of his excellent work, that’s why we’re sitting here,” Jeff Rodgers Jr. told the judge.
When Salvant asked Jeff Rodgers what he felt would constitute justice in the case, Jeff Rodgers said the family believed a sentence of at least 30 years.
“Had he come forward at that time and did the right thing, based on my knowledge of the juvenile system, this matter would probably be all resolved by now,” Jeff Rodgers said. “It wasn’t and there was a series of lies for 44 years that covered this up.
“... I wish it would have been handled earlier. That way my parents would have known someone was held accountable for the loss of their son.”
Per the law in 1973, Knox will eligible for parole after his actual time served and good conduct time equals one-third of his sentence, Smid said.
“Today belongs to the Rodgers family,” he said. “They have waited 45 years for justice and this honorable court gave it to them today.”