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Justice Department Reopens Civil Rights Cases

March 21, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: For many of the families of the beaten victims, the lynched and murdered during the 1960s civil rights movement, it’s been justice delayed and denied, in some cases for 50 years.

State and federal law enforcement officials have successfully prosecuted several decades-old civil rights cases in recent years. In January, former Ku Klux Klan member James Seale was indicted for the kidnappings and murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee in Meadville, Mississippi, in 1964.

But there are still hundreds of crimes for which no one was ever prosecuted. Now the Justice Department has announced a new initiative to reopen investigations into those so-called cold cases.

At a press conference last month in Washington, FBI Director Robert Mueller explained why, after so much time, it was still important to search for answers.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI Director: In too many instances, the truth has been hidden for too long. Many individuals have, quite literally, gotten away with murder.

We cannot turn back the clock. We cannot right these wrongs. But we can try to bring a measure of justice to those who remain.

We know that some memories may fade, some evidence may be lost, and some witnesses may pass away. We know that, no matter how much work we devote to an investigation, we may not always get the result that we’re hoping for. But in other cases, we will.

RAY SUAREZ: The unprosecuted cases include those of Lamar Smith, who was shot dead on the lawn of a Brookhaven, Miss., courthouse in 1955. Despite several eyewitness accounts of the shooting, no one was ever arrested.

William Lewis Moore was shot and killed in Attalla, Ala., in 1963, during a one-man march against segregation. Ballistics tests proved the identity of the gun owner, but no one was indicted.

And O’Neal Moore, a deputy sheriff in Bogalusa, La., was gunned down in his patrol car in 1965. Authorities arrested one suspect but released him two weeks later.

It’s unclear which cases will be prosecuted first, but the Justice Department says several investigations are already under way.

Difficulty of pursuing old cases

RAY SUAREZ: For more now on reviving these investigations, we're joined by Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi. He's been covering the efforts to prosecute civil rights-era cases for some two decades.

Jerry Mitchell, it also appears that, in addition to government and traditional law enforcement involvement, you've got outsiders who are feeding information to these investigative bodies.

JERRY MITCHELL, The Clarion-Ledger: It's very true, and it's kind of been happening that way for some time, kind of in a piecemeal effort rather than some kind of centralized effort, with each jurisdiction kind of working on these cases.

You have families who have pushed these authorities to go forward with the cases and others, the media, for example. That's how this thing has kind of happened over all this time.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, I understand the attention has coalesced around some 74 cases, but, surprisingly, some of those cases are around 60 years old. What's the likelihood of finding a likely suspect, much less finding one who's still alive?

JERRY MITCHELL: It's going to be very difficult. I think in probably the majority of these cases, they probably are not going to be able to bring a case. Either suspects are going to be dead, witnesses are going to be dead, the trail's going to be just simply too cold, unfortunately.

Looking for evidence, witnesses

RAY SUAREZ: And did law enforcement agencies in those days take the kind of care of preserving chains of evidence, preserving photographs and footprint molds and that kind of thing?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, at times. Not universally all didn't, but law enforcement has improved dramatically since those days. Now, the FBI did thoroughly investigate some of these cases, and, obviously, we have those photographs and things like that. The Mississippi burning case, the killings of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, there's something like 40,000 pages of documents, as well as photographs.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, a lot of people have talked about the trail going cold on some of these cases, but conversely, after this amount of time, are there people who are more willing to talk today than they were then?

JERRY MITCHELL: Absolutely. You have some of these Klansmen who have been afraid to come forward, who were Klansmen, say, in those days, and maybe are willing to come forward now. They want to, you know, rid their consciences of this guilt or whatever else they're feeling.

And so I think, definitely, there are converse things that happen, in terms of some positive, some negative, in terms of bringing these cases about.

Success rates for convictions

RAY SUAREZ: Now, some of the most notorious cases from those days have been retried decades later. But haven't there also been cases where grand juries have been unwilling to indict or juries unwilling to convict?

JERRY MITCHELL: There's been quite a bit of success in bringing these cases overall, I'd say. There have been 29 different killings from the civil rights era have been reexamined. There have been 27 arrests and overall there's been 22 convictions. So that's a pretty good ratio.

RAY SUAREZ: In some of the towns involved, people have been of more than one mind about whether this was worth doing.

JERRY MITCHELL: Absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: One elderly attorney said, "Everybody thinks those days are behind us and we're moving forward in the correct direction." One African-American young man said, "Look, this kind of thing wouldn't happen today. I'm not sure we need to go back to those times."

JERRY MITCHELL: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Why do this?

JERRY MITCHELL: Well, I think there are several reasons. One is, you know, there's no statute of limitations on murder, and there's a reason for that. There's a reason that murder doesn't have a statute of limitation, because information may come about -- you know, in Indiana, the daughter of a man who committed murder came forward after several decades. She was a child at the time.

You have, also, you know, the families themselves. I know I was talking to one woman one time whose daughter had been murdered -- it was not a civil rights activist. It was a white woman. And she had told me, "Why are you writing about these cases all the time? Why don't you just leave it alone?"

And she mentioned about her daughter being murdered, and the man she believed was the killer had been acquitted. So he couldn't be tried again. And I said, "Well, how would you feel if he could be tried again?" She said, "Well, I'd be all for it." And I said, "Well, don't you think these families feel the same way?"

Unexplained killings

RAY SUAREZ: Beyond the 74 that are the now-focus of this cold case squad, are there tens, dozens, scores more of these unexplained killings that we'll, in fact, never know what happened?

JERRY MITCHELL: Unfortunately, yes. I mean, I know that the Southern Poverty Law Center, they have, I think, a list of about 127 killings that we know of, and some of those we just have a name and maybe a date. We know very little more than that.

And so, obviously, those kind of cases are going to be extremely difficult to resurrect and bring about. But then there are the others that we know nothing about that didn't even make the list, unfortunately.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Jerry Mitchell, thanks for joining us.

JERRY MITCHELL: Thank you.