WASHINGTON — With the federal law that required the FBI to reopen unsolved civil rights-era homicide investigations set to expire in just over a year, some lawmakers have come forward with a bill to extend the project and expand its scope.
The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which expires in September 2017, required the FBI to take a fresh look at 113 separate homicide cases involving 126 deaths, including 13 in Louisiana.
The new measure by Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would remove the existing requirement that federal investigators could look only at deaths before 1970 and may require the agency to re-examine many other cases.
The bill also would indefinitely extend the law’s original 10-year deadline.
According to the latest Justice Department report, the FBI was down to eight cases still active, including one in Louisiana. They are:
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, killed June 21, 1964, in Philadelphia, Mississippi
George and Mae Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcolm, killed July 25, 1946, in Monroe, Georgia
Rogers Hamilton, killed Oct. 22, 1957, in Lowndes County, Alabama
Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith, killed Feb. 8, 1968, in Orangeburg, South Carolina
Oneal Moore, killed June 2, 1965, in Varnado
Mack Charles Parker, killed May 4, 1959, in Pearl River County, Mississippi
William Roy Prather, killed Oct. 31, 1959, in Corinth, Mississippi
Dan Carter Sanders, killed Nov. 18, 1946, in Johnston County, North Carolina
Some of those cases may have been unofficially closed over the past year since that report was issued. The LSU Cold Case Project learned that the 1965 shooting death of Moore in Washington Parish is one of the cases still open.
Moore was the first black sheriff’s deputy in the parish. A group of men wielding rifles and handguns pulled alongside Moore and his partner, Creed Rogers, in a pickup truck and fired into the deputies’ patrol car. Rogers was blinded in one eye but survived. One man was arrested in connection with the killing, but no charges were ever filed.
The original act is named for Emmett Till, a black teenager brutally murdered in 1955 near Money, Mississippi, for whistling at a white woman. Till’s killers were acquitted of their crime. A year later, they admitted they killed Till in an interview for a national magazine, the double-jeopardy principle protecting them from being recharged.
In the time since many of these cold case crimes were committed, most suspects and witnesses have moved away from the area or died. Investigators have no qualms about bringing charges against aged suspected murderers, but they often are too late to prosecute offenders who walked free for years after committing their heinous crimes.
The FBI’s efforts under the Emmett Till Act have yielded only two prosecutions. James Ford Seale, who died in 2011, was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping and murder of two black teenagers in Mississippi in 1964. James Fowler, a former Alabama state trooper, was tried in the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and convicted of manslaughter.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a co-sponsor of the renewal legislation, says she is confident the new bill empowers the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute if it can build a case.
“The federal government can always investigate any crime for any civil rights violation,” she recently told the St. Louis American. “But (this) law does give resources and focus where these cases can be prosecuted under civil rights laws.”
Stephen Kam, chief of the FBI Civil Rights Division, is one of six administrators who have supervised the cold case investigations since the program’s inception in 2007. The scarcity of prosecutions notwithstanding, Kam told the LSU team recently that he considers the effort a success.
The program, he said, encouraged reflection on a violent and hateful period of American history and provided an avenue for agents to achieve justice for heinous crimes.
Aside from prosecutions, the law prompted avenues to closure for many families victimized by racial violence in areas where their grief was all but forgotten. Federal agents, journalists and academics investigated many victims’ stories and were able to tell many families what they think happened to their loved ones and who the FBI believes was responsible, even if that person couldn’t be held legally responsible, he said.
But Lewis, a leader during the civil rights era and sponsor of the Till Act, said he is ultimately disappointed in the investigations and lack of prosecutions.
“If you want closure, you want prosecutions to bring people to trial and bring these families closure,” Lewis said.
The FBI steadfastly defends its efforts, with officials noting it is difficult for agents to pursue cases after suspects are deceased or leads have gone cold.
The Emmett Till Act directs the Justice Department and the FBI to work with local law enforcement and publish an annual report on their progress. The FBI published its most recent report in May 2015 and is expected to publish another this year, which may indicate the team’s final strategy as it prepares to end its oversight if the act’s revival is not congressionally approved.