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Turning Up The Heat On Civil Rights-Era Cold Cases

May 18, 2013
Originally published on May 18, 2013 12:26 pm

Six years ago, the FBI took on a challenge: To review what it called cold-case killings from the civil rights era. The investigation into 112 cases from the 1950s and 1960s is winding down, and civil rights activists are weighing the FBI's efforts.

The review comes with word this week of the death of a man who'd been named, by a newspaper investigation, as a possible suspect in one notorious case.

The Case

The investigation was of the death of Frank Morris, in Ferriday, La., in 1964. Morris was a successful black businessman, the owner of a small shoe shop. His business success — and the respect for him from some white residents — made other white residents resentful.

On a December night in 1964, a group of men set his shop on fire. Morris was inside and burned in the fire.

In 2011, Stanley Nelson, the editor of The Concordia Sentinel, the weekly newspaper in Ferriday, revealed that a suspect in the case was still alive. The man had been implicated by members of his own family, and they spoke to Nelson.

That case was featured on NPR in two stories in January and February 2011. The man denied he'd been involved.

This week, the man died.

Was It Enough?

An FBI official on Friday told NPR in a statement that the agency had "diligently pursued the information," but "turned up no credible evidence" to link the man to the killing.

But Paula Johnson, law professor and co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University, called on Congress to hold hearings to see whether the FBI has done enough to investigate Morris' and other cases.

"We would want a much more accelerated pace to these cases," she says, "and that's the thing that we're calling for."

The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Act, passed by Congress in 2008, provided $10 million annually for the FBI and the Department of Justice to investigate unsolved, racially motivated killings from before 1970. One of the lead proponents of that law says he's "disappointed overall" in its implementation.

"[There] never was a very aggressive outreach effort to find evidence and witnesses," says Alvin Sykes, president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign.

'Between A Rock And A Hard Place'

But other civil rights activists, including Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center, say the FBI has done a lot with some very difficult cases.

"At the time they announced the initiative in 2007, what I said was that justice in a few cases was going to have to serve as a proxy for justice in many," Cohen says. "Because the reality is, after all of that time, there were very few cases that were probably going to be [prosecutorial]."

The FBI's Cold Case Initiative has had two notable successes in recent years: The prosecution of a former Klansman in the death of two young black men in Mississippi, a case from 1964; and the prosecution of a former Alabama state trooper in the death of an unarmed civil rights marcher in 1965.

Cohen says the FBI took on a difficult — and rather thankless — task.

"What concerned me at the time was raising false hopes in so many family members for whom justice had long been denied," says Cohen, whose group was among the most vocal in calling for the FBI to review these old cases. "So I think the FBI has had a long public relations issue in dealing with expectations. ... The FBI was between a rock and a hard place."

Still Cold

After nearly 50 years or more, evidence had been lost. Suspects and witnesses had died. Or memories had faded. Federal authorities had limited legal jurisdiction in these old cases.

Now the FBI is winding down the Cold Case Initiative. The vast majority of cases have been closed, with no action taken. And of the just 20 cases still open, there's been no breakthrough to suggest any more of them can be solved.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The FBI took on a challenge six years ago to review what it called cold case killings from the U.S. Civil Rights era. FBI director, Robert Mueller stood with officials from major civil rights groups and announced that agents would investigate some 100 unsolved crimes from the 1960s and '50s.

DIRECTOR ROBERT MUELLER: The cases in which we can move forward, we will move forward.

SIMON: But with the death this week of a possible suspect in one notorious case, some civil rights activists are questioning the FBI's efforts. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Paula Johnson researches these Civil Rights killings as a law professor at Syracuse University. And as the co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative, she says time is running out.

PAULA JOHNSON: There absolutely is urgency. There has to be an all-out effort.

SHAPIRO: Johnson was upset after chances seemed to fade this week for solving one particularly horrific killing - of Frank Morris, an African American man who owned a shoe shop in Ferriday, Louisiana. On a December night in 1964, a group of men set his shop on fire.

JOHNSON: He was not able to get out himself and so he suffered third degree burns over the majority of his body, over 90 percent of his body, before he passed away.

SHAPIRO: In 2011, a weekly newspaper in Louisiana, the Concordia Sentinel, revealed a suspect in the case was still alive. The man was implicated by members of his own family. That case was featured on NPR in 2011. The man denied he's been involved and this week he died. An FBI official released a statement saying the agency had, quote, "diligently pursued the information but found no credible evidence to link the man to the killing."

Still, attorney Paula Johnson is asking congress to hold hearings to see whether the FBI has done enough to investigate this and other cases.

JOHNSON: We would want a much more accelerated pace to these cases, and that's the thing we're calling for.

SHAPIRO: The FBI's Cold Case Initiative has had two notable successes in recent years: the prosecution of a former Clansman in the death of two young black men in Mississippi, a case from 1964; and the prosecution of a former Alabama state trooper in the death of a civil rights marcher in 1965. Richard Cohen gives the FBI credit for that. He's the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, One of the civil rights groups that called on the FBI to start the Cold Case Initiative.

RICHARD COHEN: At the time that they announced the initiative in 2007, what I said was that justice in a few cases was going to have to serve as a proxy for justice in many because the reality is, after all of that time, there are very few cases that were probably going to be prosecutoriable.

SHAPIRO: Cohen applauds the FBI for taking on very difficult cases. After nearly 50 years or more, evidence was lost, suspects and witnesses dead, or memories faded. Federal authorities had limited legal jurisdiction in these old cases. Now, the FBI is winding down the Cold Case Initiative. The vast majority of cases have been closed with no action taken. And of the just 20 cases still open, there's been no breakthrough to suggest any more of them can be solved. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

SIMON: And tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY, Rachel Martin profiles a man whose specialty is breaking into long forgotten homicide cases.

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