It was, as James Ware told it, the tragedy that made him "hungry for justice:" the murder of his teenage brother, Virgil, in a racist shooting in Birmingham, Ala., at the height of the civil rights struggle in 1963. That moment inspired Ware to earn a law degree at Stanford University and, eventually, an appointment from George Bush as a U.S. District Court judge in San Jose, Calif.
The tragedy happened, all right, but not to Judge Ware or his family. On Thursday, the judge confessed that his account was "not the truth" and asked President Clinton to withdraw his nomination to become the only active black judge on the prestigious 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"I am sorry that my misstatements about my background have caused such unintended consequences," Ware, 51, said in a letter faxed to the president. "I am deeply committed to the cause of civil rights and do not wish to be seen, as is being suggested, as using the unfortunate tragedy which befell Virgil Ware as trying to better myself at someone else's expense."
Judge's Ware's withdrawal came after the Birmingham News published a story on Thursday reporting that the real family of Virgil Lamar Ware, including the dead man's brother, also named James, a worker for a coke-processing company in Birmingham, disputed the judge's claims.
An earlier story in the newspaper, in August, detailed the story of the Ware family and its three decades of grief since two white teenagers shot 13-year-old Virgil off the handlebars of a bicycle pedaled by James on Sept. 15, 1963, the same day four black girls were killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of a Baptist church across town.
"Why would he do something like that?" the other James Ware, now 50, asked. "I have no idea. I'd like to talk to him, and ask him why. I didn't think it was true. I couldn't picture a man being that hard up, doing that. . . .
"I couldn't believe it. Then the lady from the Birmingham News called me yesterday and said she got it off the Internet, and then I knew it was true."
Judge Ware, who recalled being so disgusted at the Democrats' control of the Jim Crow South that he became a Republican in protest, had drawn no noticeable controversy when Clinton nominated him for promotion in June.
White House and administration officials, and staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing on Judge Ware's nomination last week, were equally stunned by his admission.
Administration officials and Senate aides said that when they first learned of the possible discrepancy on Wednesday and questioned Judge Ware about it, he gave evasive, indirect answers.
In response to a message left in his chambers seeking comment on Thursday, Judge Ware's office simply faxed a copy of his withdrawal letter. A spokesman for the White House, Barry Toiv, said he assumed Judge Ware would remain on the district court.
In Alabama, the other James Ware had his own questions.
"If he just called me and said, "Mr. Ware, I'd like to apologize for what I done,' " James Ware said. "But they say he's keeping a low profile. Why'd he do this, unless he was trying to gain? Like I said, he was already on his way up."