Re-opening cold cases from the Civil Rights' Era

Re-opening cold cases from the Civil Rights' Era

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., December 2009

Last month, the body of 14-year-old Emmitt Till, a black boy killed in 1955 for allegedly "wolf-whistling" at a white woman, was exhumed to determine whether others should be charged in his death—the two men originally charged were summarily acquitted by an all-white jury. Just a few weeks ago, 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen was convicted and sentenced to 60 years' imprisonment for murdering three "Freedom Riders" who had travelled to to help register blacks to vote in 1964.

Yes, you read those dates right. Forty and fifty years after these files were placed on prosecutors' backburners, both cases were revived because of continued interest in their outcomes and in good old-fashioned justice.

Till had been visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta when the alleged whistle occurred. The woman in question's husband and his half-brother sought out the young boy, kidnapped him while he was sleeping, and then beat, shot, hacked, and drowned him. They were charged with murder, but an all-white jury acquitted both men in under an hour and a half—one juror quipped that it wouldn't have taken quite so long if they hadn't taken a break for drinks.

Later, although the two admitted their guilt to a magazine, they couldn't be retried due to double jeopardy laws. Thanks to concerned citizens, civil rights leaders, and Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush, Till's body was exhumed recently to determine whether the wife could also be charged in the case.

As for the Freedom Riders, their bodies were found 44 days after they were abducted in Mississippi by a Ku Klux Klan mob. At the time, 18 men were charged by federal authorities—none, however, with murder. At the time, no federal murder statutes existed. Seven were convicted, and none served more than 6 years in prison. Killen's proceedings ended with a mistrial in 1967.

More recently, three Illinois high school students convinced Representatives Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, and John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, to sponsor a resolution to revisit the case.

Why the sudden interest in cold cases from the Civil Rights' Era?

Well, first of all, the interest isn't so sudden. Since 1989, authorities in seven states have taken a new look at 29 killings from the Civil Rights' Era, resulting in 27 arrests, 21 convictions, two acquittals, and one mistrial.

If Senator Jim Talent, a Republican from Missouri, has anything to say about it, the Till and Killen cases are just the beginning. Senator Talent worked closely with Alvin Sykes, president of Emmitt Till Justice Campaign Inc., and is pushing related legislation. He wants a special Justice Department unit to be created solely for Civil Rights' Era cold cases. This proposal isn't entirely foreign to our government, by the way. Congress created the "Office of Special Investigations" in 1979 to bring former Nazis to justice. Senator Talent contends that federal funds and additional manpower will help encourage the reopening of such cases since a state or local prosecutor may feel ill-equipped.

While the Till and Killen cases are the most recent, a few other high profile, relatively recent convictions have come from crimes committed during the Civil Rights' Era. Byron De La Beckwith's 1994 conviction for the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers was made famous by Hollywood in "Ghosts of Mississippi." In 1998, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers was convicted of the 1966 murder of Hattiesburg, Mississippi NAACP President Vernon Dahmer. Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were convicted in 2001 and 2002 respectively for their roles in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls.

Even without Senator Talent's proposed Justice Department Unit, authorities across the southern United States are re-examining cases, which has resulted in reopened investigations. In Alabama, the killing of Jimmy Lee Jackson by a highway patrolman is receiving new attention. Georgia authorities are looking into the 1946 white lynch mob killings of four black sharecroppers at Moore's FordBridge. In Florida, the 1951 deaths of NAACP leader Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette from an explosion in their home on Christmas are also being investigated.

But reopening decades-old cases isn't easy. G. Douglas Jones, the former federal prosecutor who brought new charges in the Birmingham bombing case, noted:"With old and cold cases, there comes the problem of old and missing evidence, and old and dying witnesses." Nevertheless, despite claims that revisiting these cases only opens old wounds, the process is vital to the continued growth of our nation. Indeed, as Susan M. Glesson, director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, stated in reference to these trials, they are "necessary public rituals of atonement that the state needs to go through."

No new charges will likely come from Till's exhumation—prosecutors lack a witness that puts the wife at the scene of the murder. But convicting another person with this crime was never really the point in reopening the Till investigation, or any others like it. In many of these cases, there was barely an investigation the first time around. Finding the truth and correcting gross injustice are most important. Civic duty in fact demands that we heat up these cold cases, showing that justice for all knows no time limit.