Episode 2: The LettersListen
WALTER HENRY: I used to joke with a coworker, an African-American coworker. And we used to joke that he would say he joined the FBI to find out what happened to Malcolm X, and I would joke and say, ‘I joined the FBI to find out what really happened to Martin Luther King!’
JAMES EDWARDS: Walter Henry spent 28 years as an FBI special agent. Working cases that ranged from bank robberies and organized crime to public corruption and human trafficking.
In 2008, Henry was given a new assignment: a transfer to the FBI’s field office in Jackson, Mississippi to work in civil rights. It’d be Henry’s first time working in this section.
HENRY: My wife being born in the South had some concerns, given the history.
EDWARDS: That history...that history that includes the names of people like Emmett Till, like Medgar Evers, that history always interested Henry. Even that joke with a Black co-worker...wanting to find out what really happened to Martin Luther King...grows from Henry’s real motivation for joining the FBI: a love of public service.
HENRY: I seen that as a means of serving justice.
EDWARDS: Henry’s own family...on his father’s side...lived through those decades in Mississippi.
HENRY: You have highly talented individuals who left this state, families who left this state because of these incidents and these events. I know one of the reasons my dad and my uncles left because although my grandfather, he was one to stand up for himself, but he only can do so much before he get pushed back.
EDWARDS: Henry tells me that when he accepted the transfer to Mississippi in 2008, he already knew about some of the work being done in the civil rights unit. He was aware of the new law championed by Congressman John Lewis – the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, and of the Department of Justice-FBI initiative underway to reinvestigate civil rights era cold cases.
That same year he attended a conference at FBI headquarters. He was there with a supervisor who, like Henry, was newly assigned to work civil rights. And what they learned there about the list of cold cases to be reopened...surprised them.
HENRY: The headquarters people were talking about all these cases, and the number of bodies assigned to those cases. And we looked and we seen all of these cases that we were responsible for. And I had no idea and I don't think she had any idea. And so that was kind of a shock to us that these cases were out there and what we were responsible for.
EDWARDS: What Henry and the Jackson field office were responsible for...were 43 cold cases from Mississippi...the most of any state on the growing list being pursued under the Till Act.
Each day that passed meant less time...one thing any investigator can’t afford to lose in cases like these.
EDWARDS: And just when you saw the number of cases that were just in Mississippi alone, what were your first thoughts just seeing that?
HENRY: Well, not surprised given my knowledge of the area. But the surprise came in as, um, you know, how did it slip through the cracks that we weren't aware that we had these. And so we had all of these deadlines coming up. And so now we have to start getting busy and start working those cases.
EDWARDS: So Henry’s supervisor divvied cases out to several agents.
HENRY: The problem with that was you have a number of agents, good agents, experienced agents, but these agents are not familiar with working, not only civil rights cases, but you're talking about cold case civil rights matters.
EDWARDS: Henry himself was among those agents new to this type of case. But before retiring from the FBI in 2019, Walter Henry was one of the few agents in Mississippi to work civil rights era cases full-time, including personally working on close to 20 cases on the Till Act list.
To try to understand what happened over time with the government’s cold case initiative, Mississippi is an important place to look. Because there were so many cases. Because of the state’s long history of Jim Crow and racist violence.
And what does it say about the larger effort that the state with the most cases on the list hits the ground running flat footed — with communications issues and only a small number of agents working cases full time?
To find out, I wanted to examine one case in Mississippi in particular...one not as well known as Emmett Till or the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
This case happened more than an hour southeast of Jackson, in a town called Taylorsville.
The investigation of this case gets at a central question — What was the federal government’s main goal? Justice by traditional means...like arrest and prosecution? Or something more? Something beyond a courtroom...when that way of justice isn’t possible.
EDWARDS: From FRONTLINE, I’m James Edwards, and this is Un(re)solved.
Episode 2: The Letters
CORDERO DUCKSWORTH: The only thing you remember is loud noises. The gunshots, you know. You don't remember much.
EDWARDS: Cordero Ducksworth was five years old when he lost his father Roman. An Army corporal and military policeman, Roman Ducksworth, Jr. was laid to rest in his birthplace of Taylorsville, Mississippi. Cordero can only remember flashes of that day in 1962: The color guard, the 16-gun salute.
DUCKSWORTH: My mother wanted me to attend — so I can see what happened to my father. But when you that young, you don’t take note.
In a black and white photo from the funeral, five-year-old Cordero, dressed in a suit and bow tie, is sitting and looking right at the camera. Next to him, his aunt and a nurse console his mother Melva. The grief still raw on their faces.
Cordero’s, though, is almost expressionless.
DUCKSWORTH: You know, your father's being laid into the ground and you don't even really think about why.
EDWARDS: By the next year, Cordero would move from Taylorsville with his mom and five siblings. They settled right outside of Chicago, in Joliet, Illinois, where Cordero still lives.
EDWARDS: What are your own memories of him while he was alive?
DUCKSWORTH: My own memories of him when he did come home, he used to bring home presents, you know for us, but he didn’t come home that often. He was still, you know, stationed up in Maryland. He didn’t come home that often.
EDWARDS: Cordero says that because his dad was usually away in the military, his thoughts and ideas about him during this time, right after his death...were nothing.
Listening to him tell me this makes me think of my grandfather...my mom’s dad...who also migrated from Mississippi to Chicago. Like Cordero’s family and many others, with the hope of a better, safer life. He died right before I turned 3, and my memories of him are limited to a flash of him shooing me out of his and my grandmother’s bedroom. I had a knack for wandering around back then. But that’s it. No recollection of his voice, his walk, his smell.
The only other things filling in that blank canvas...old photos and stories from relatives.
Cordero says that, as a kid, he didn’t think about his dad often. Except at school, when he got into sports.
DUCKSWORTH: You see the other guys with their fathers there, cheering them on, and I don’t have mines there. That's the only time I really thought about my father, because I didn't have a male support like my friends all did. I did have some support from my friend's fathers, and my uncle came a couple of times to support, but it's not like having your own.
EDWARDS: It’s not.
But Cordero still had his mom, Melva. Working two to three jobs, she wasn’t able to participate in many school activities, but Cordero says she always made sure he and his siblings had what they needed.
EDWARDS: How do you think your dad's death affected your mom as she was raising you and your brothers and sisters?
DUCKSWORTH: Well, I used to see her cry, you know, once in a while, and I remember one time I — my mother had long hair grown down her backside, and she cut it, she cut it shorter than her shoulders. And, and I asked her, I said, “Mom, why did you cut your hair, it’s long and beautiful, and now you got it all cut off. Why'd you cut it?” And she's like, “Because it's hot and I'm tired of having this long hair.” And I said, “If dad was here, you wouldn't have cut your hair.” And then she yelled at me and she ran into the room and started crying. I think that was the only time I made my mother cry. I never mentioned my father any more after that.
EDWARDS: Even when Cordero and his siblings made those trips back to Mississippi to visit relatives, the subject of his dad rarely came up.
DUCKSWORTH: Talking about my father would force us to ask questions, you understand what I’m saying?
EDWARDS: From all that he was told and able to gather, Cordero believed that his dad got sick and died while in the military.
He’d grow up, get married, and have a family of his own.
Then one day, in 1989 — when he was in his 30s — Cordero got a letter in the mail.
DUCKSWORTH: It was about a memorial that was being held for my father in Montgomery, Alabama. I go, ‘A memorial? Why is my father being memorialized?’
EDWARDS: The letter came from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The civil rights group was inviting Cordero and his family down to Montgomery for the unveiling of this new memorial. It honored people it called civil rights martyrs: individuals murdered during the modern Civil Rights movement. Not knowing why anyone would consider his father a martyr, Cordero figured only one person would know.
DUCKSWORTH: So I called my mom. I go, ‘Why do I have a letter about my father telling me something that I never knew anything about?’ So she said that I needed to come home. And so I came down and she sat down and told me what happened.
EDWARDS: Here’s what she told him: The truth about what happened to Roman starts on a bus...in April 1962.
Roman Ducksworth, Jr. was traveling back home to Taylorsville. He had been stationed in Maryland, while Melva and their children remained in Mississippi. At the time, Melva was pregnant with their sixth child. But something was wrong. Roman received notice that she needed an emergency C-section.
Roman was hurrying to be by her side.
His bus pulled into the station in Taylorsville on the night of April 9th. Witnesses say Roman had fallen asleep, and the driver was unable to wake him after the bus stopped.
So the driver called the police.
Taylorsville Officer William Kelly arrived, and once he boarded the bus, he slapped Roman to wake him up and escort him off. Kelly then tried to arrest Roman and take him to the patrol car. From there, witness statements of what exactly happened vary.
What we do know is that after they got off the bus, an altercation broke out...and Officer Kelly drew his gun. He fired one shot into the ground...and then another into Roman’s chest, killing him at the scene.
27 years old.
DUCKSWORTH: Of course he didn't want to go to jail - his wife was sick. She wasn't even expected to live. And with everything going on at the time, who knows if he would have even lasted in that jail.
EDWARDS: A day after the shooting, a local grand jury weighed conflicting eyewitness statements about what happened, and heard testimony from a town marshal who claimed Roman was drunk and unruly. But there was no autopsy, or any proof of this.
Less than 24 hours after Roman was killed, the all-white grand jury cleared Officer William Kelly. They believed his account — that he shot Roman in self defense — that, as a report on the incident says, the shooting was justified.
Learning the truth about his father’s death also led Cordero to another discovery about his past — why his mom Melva moved him and his siblings out of Taylorsville.
DUCKSWORTH: My mother used to cause trouble. She used to take us kids and walk downtown, parading us, agitating the people down there because of what happened to her husband. And she walked through the front door of stores and not through the back door of stores. She was trying to make a statement.
We were asked to move from Mississippi, from the family, because of all the trouble that we were causing with the townspeople and, you know, I had aunts and uncles houses that were catching on fire.
EDWARDS: Cordero admits that he didn’t understand for a long time why his mom refused to tell him the whole story. It reminds me of something my mother told me, about growing up in the 60s...that when she was young, there were just certain things adults in the family never talked about.
To find the truth, if you were a kid, she says, you had to stumble upon it.
I didn’t have to wait as long as Cordero or stumble upon the truth of what happened to my grandfather. I can’t remember the exact moment I found out that he had been murdered...shot one late night in the tavern he owned in Chicago. Neither a police shooting, nor a racist killing...a personal dispute.
For a long time, that’s all I knew of it...and of him. Like Cordero, it took a while for me to get the whole story...or at least get closer to it.
I understand now why my mom didn’t want me to know. As with Melva Ducksworth, she wanted to protect her child.
Melva, though, was also trying to steer her children away from something else, Cordero tells me. She didn’t want the way Roman died to loom over their lives as they got older.
DUCKSWORTH: She was pretty strict in making sure that we didn't have any anger towards anybody growing up. That we didn't have hatred in our hearts. And we didn't.
I did ask her, you know, ‘How come you don’t hate?’ And she says that, ‘If I hated, what good would it do? And what good would it have done for you?’
But at the same time, you know, I felt like I was deprived of information that I should have had.
EDWARDS: How did you explain the truth about your dad to your daughter?
DUCKSWORTH: I really didn't have to explain it because she went with me, back in ‘89 when I first found out. And at that time she didn't like history at all.
EDWARDS: After Cordero Ducksworth received that letter from the Southern Poverty Center in 1989...with the news that his father Roman was being included in a new memorial honoring civil rights martyrs...Cordero, his daughter, and their family made the trip to Montgomery, Alabama for the memorial’s unveiling.
DUCKSWORTH: She was kind of surprised to see her grandfather's name on a wall, and to see his picture in the museum. She didn't know that her family has — has history.
SPLC ARCHIVE (NARRATOR): At the memorial, they gather to honor, to remember, to reflect.
EDWARDS: The SPLC’s memorial is a circular black granite table with the names of each of the martyrs. Water rises from its center and flows evenly across.
Architect Maya Lin conceived the memorial. She previously earned recognition designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.
For the martyrs, Lin was inspired by the concept of water as a healing effect and this passage from a speech by another name on the memorial.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (ARCHIVE): No, no. We are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream
DUCKSWORTH: We were, I believe, the second largest family that was at the memorial.
We met Medgar Evers’ family...We met Rosa Parks; she was staying in the same hotel that we were staying in...We met the Kennedys...and also the Kings.
EDWARDS: Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, was also there.
SPLC ARCHIVE (MAMIE TILL MOBLEY): Almost as if I were touching him, touching Emmett himself.
EDWARDS: In the years that followed, on Cordero’s trips to visit relatives back in Taylorsville, he carried a lot more questions...and got few answers. Long before, they had promised Melva Ducksworth that they would not talk about Roman’s death with Cordero and his siblings.
DUCKSWORTH: So, I was pretty much the one that was diligently asking questions or trying to get information from the family. And believe me — wasn't getting it. People just refused to talk about it.
EDWARDS: How do you think it impacted your relationship with the rest of your family?
DUCKSWORTH: Relationship didn't change. I understood where the family was coming from, so I didn't fault them or get angry at them. Knowing how the world is down there, ‘cause... You know it was probably about 20 years ago, I took my wife down there, and my cousin was like, ‘You're married to a white girl. Do you know how much trouble you can get in down here? You know, even talking to a white girl?’
I'm like, ‘No, I don't, but obviously, it's a problem.’
EDWARDS: Those visits to relatives might not have provided the answers Cordero hoped to uncover, but that’s not the only place he looked for help.
Cordero began attending events honoring other people memorialized as civil rights martyrs, getting to know families like his own. It was at one of these events that Cordero met a professor at Syracuse University.
Its law school had launched an initiative looking into civil rights-era crimes. Along with students, they started working with Cordero to uncover new details about his father’s case.
DUCKSWORTH: Most of all the information that I know about my father was from the lawyers. I couldn’t get it from my relatives.
By the fall of 2008, the FBI also began looking into the killing. Roman was one of the many cases referred to the government from the Southern Poverty Law Center and its list of martyrs.
Cordero tells me he and his family were hopeful... With one exception.
DUCKSWORTH: My mom… not so much. I mean, she wanted it for us. But she knew from past history, I believe, that they was gonna try to get away with not doing it. So by the time that this process was going on, the only thing I wanted, that I was hoping to do — even if they didn’t arrest Officer Kelly — as long as I can try to get that ‘justified’ taken out, then that would be a win for me and my family.
EDWARDS: What Cordero wanted...getting to the bottom of that finding of “justified”...many believed that was part of the intent of the Till Act and federal government’s Cold Case Initiative: correct the record, present the truth...even when arrest and prosecution were not possible.
But at the FBI and Justice Department, not everyone agreed.
CYNTHIA DEITLE: The pushback that I often got was, ‘Look, there's nothing that's going to come of this cold case.’ So there was one school of thought that there were other cases that needed attention today.
EDWARDS: That’s Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI special agent who led the Bureau’s civil rights cold case unit.
DEITLE: We should have conducted a full and thorough investigation just to uncover the truth, and that’s you know, again, that’s my personal opinion. I’m not sure how much leeway the FBI would have to pursue a case where no one’s getting arrested or prosecuted. I don’t… you know… It’s just… I guess I always expected us to do more.
Deitle joined the unit in 2007, not long after a DOJ-FBI press conference where the agencies announced their Cold Case Initiative. Even by that point, Deitle says the momentum around the program had, in Deitle’s words, “stalled.” So when she got promoted the next year to be the unit’s chief, she told me she lobbied for a different approach.
DEITLE: I argued at the time that there's more to it than that. This isn't just about, ‘Oh, gee, the person who shot your father or your grandfather, your uncle, well, he's deceased, so we're closing the case.’ We're walking away. For them, it was what happened. Can you please tell me the truth? Can you tell me what happened?
EDWARDS: Deitle says this difference of opinion sparked a lot of heated discussions with fellow agents and prosecutors.
I've talked to a number of former FBI agents and other officials while reporting this story. Cynthia Deitle stands out to me.
The best example: before she joined the FBI, Deitle researched its history...specifically around race relations...and the person most responsible for building the bureau into what it became...its longest-serving director...oh, and the namesake of its headquarters building.
DEITLE: I despised J. Edgar Hoover. And I thought, well the only way to change an organization like that is to get inside of it and change it and make it better and make it what it could be, which is a protector of civil rights.
- Edgar Hoover spent nearly 50 years leading the FBI and the agency that preceded it. Under Hoover’s watch and direction, the FBI became infamous for its surveillance of civil rights leaders and infiltrating many civil rights and political groups. The director maintained that these activities lined up with the bureau’s mission.
When the FBI did step into civil rights matters, Hoover was quick to state the limits of what the FBI could do. Here he is in 1964 at a press conference about the disappearance of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
- EDGAR HOOVER (ARCHIVE): We certainly do not and will not give protection to civil rights workers. In the first place the FBI is not a police organization, it is purely an investigative organization. And the protection of individual citizens…is a matter for the local authorities.
Those individual citizens included Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and members of civil rights groups. The FBI used its power to surveil and harass activists.
That’s decades of history — decades of mistrust built between the FBI and Black Americans.
Deitle says she joined the FBI in the hope of reforming it from the inside. And she applied that same approach to the cold case unit. Soon after her promotion, she hit the ground running to make more people aware of the initiative.
From doing media interviews, to attending community meetings...even making appearances on the FBI’s podcast.
FBI PODCAST (ARCHIVE): Welcome to inside the FBI. A weekly podcast about news, cases and operations...
Like this one from 2009.
FBI PODCAST (ARCHIVE): The FBI’s Cold Case Initiative — it’s up and running.
DEITLE (ARCHIVE): We have our cold case initiative in which we are looking at racially motivated homicides which occurred before 1969.
FBI PODCAST (ARCHIVE): That's Supervisory Special Agent Cynthia Deitle. She's the chief of the FBI civil rights unit in the criminal investigative division.
EDWARDS: Take me through just the life cycle of a case. What's the process like?
DEITLE: Every month we would evaluate where the cases were. So how far had the investigation progressed? What investigative steps have been taken, what still needed to be done? It was about once a month that we went through all, you know, cases that were pending at that time to evaluate what had been done. So when we went out, we would meet with the agents and the supervisors.
EDWARDS: Deitle says she and her counterpart at the DOJ visited some FBI field offices more often than others...Jackson, Mississippi was one of them. That makes sense. Remember, Mississippi has the most cases on the list out of any state.
That brings me back to the case of Roman Ducksworth, Jr. I want to know what Deitle remembers about it.
DEITLE: I can't remember that case specifically in terms of how many witnesses were interviewed. What I can tell you is the normal protocol would have been to try to locate and interview any witnesses that were still alive when the investigation was reopened. But specifically on that case, which witnesses were located and re-interviewed, I don’t remember.
EDWARDS: Roman’s case is just one among a sea of cases Deitle and her unit were looking into at that time. In 2010, they closed the case — noting that William Kelly, the officer who shot Roman, was dead.
Someone else, though, started looking into Roman’s case after it was closed...and would uncover some things the FBI overlooked: That someone is my colleague, Ben Greenberg.
BEN GREENBERG: For the last 15 years or so as an independent investigative journalist, um, I've been looking, getting into unpunished acts of, racist violence from the civil rights period, the 1950s and the 1960s, uh, primarily in Mississippi
EDWARDS: Like Cordero Ducksworth, Ben started down this path to learn more about his father, who had been a special assistant to Martin Luther King in the early 1960s.
Roman Ducksworth is one of several cases in Mississippi that Ben has investigated over the years. Here he is on Al Jazeera in 2015 talking about his work.
ARCHIVE: Ben, what do you think of the government and the job they’ve done regarding these murders?
ARCHIVE GREENBERG: Well, it’s been really quite disappointing. There really was a great window of opportunity here…
Ben knew of Roman from his inclusion in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s civil rights memorial. But it wasn’t until he read a Huffington Post article about Roman that Ben started to look into the shooting. One of the first places he began was an FBI and Justice Department memo summarizing the investigation and why they closed the case.
GREENBERG: The memo had a really interesting footnote and, um, the footnote indicated that the FBI had not been able to find its own investigative documents from 1962 when they reopened this case to look at it again. And that made me wonder what they did know and how they knew it.
EDWARDS: Ben also combed through files from the NAACP and Southern Poverty Law Center, giving him a roadmap of what the FBI’s examination of the case might look like.
Then he uncovered another potential clue in a 1962 JET Magazine article about the shooting: a line that referenced a military police investigation. Because Roman was in the service, it made sense the Army would investigate.
So Ben got to work on a records request to the Department of Defense, and…
GREENBERG: A few months later, I received an investigative report from the military police investigation of the killing of Roman Ducksworth. And in that report military police interviewed nine out of the 12 passengers. And what became clear from those interviews, from those witness statements, was that there's no way to know what happened.
Some witnesses said, uh, William Kelly was acting in self defense against this Black man who was significantly taller and larger than he was, uh, some witnesses said that Roman Ducksworth was just defending himself against police brutality.
In the military police report, nearly half the witnesses confirm the officer’s account. They say they saw Roman hit the officer at least once, and that he lunged at the officer immediately before he was shot.
But the others said Roman was defending himself after the officer attacked him.
EDWARDS: I just want to go back to the immediate aftermath of the shooting. How did local police then go about their investigation?
GREENBERG: As far as I can tell, um, local police didn't conduct an investigation. In the military police investigative reports they document speaking with local law enforcement, one of whom says to military police that they kept no written records of their investigation.
EDWARDS: In the Justice Department’s 2010 closing memo for the Ducksworth case, the only reference to the military police investigation is a Department of Defense memo from 1962.
This memo summarizes what it calls the facts of the case: “the summary of the facts is in essence the subject’s version of the shooting”...the subject being Officer William Kelly.
Reading this memo back to back with the actual witness statements in the full report, I’m struck by the contrasts between the two. How the memo can be so black-and-white and definitive...while the report comes nowhere near reaching a solid conclusion.
In my conversation with Roman’s son, Cordero, I read some of the witness statements to him.
EDWARDS: So one witness says: “I don't see why the — why the soldier was shot. He wasn't committing a crime. He didn't appear to actually assault the policeman. It appeared to me that he didn't want to get arrested and taken to the police station. It appeared to me that the colored man wasn't saying anything, just shaking his head.”
And then another person says: “I don't think he should have been shot. I don't think he should have been killed if he was shot. There isn't any use to shoot a man.”
DUCKSWORTH: See, to me, that just means that in that timeframe, and what was going on in the South that because he was asleep, you gotta wake up, you know, in shock, you know, and I don't care how they spin it: there should not have been a gun involved.
EDWARDS: It’s still unclear whether any of the other passengers on the bus who gave witness statements were still alive when federal agencies reinvestigated Roman’s killing. There’s no mention of them in the DOJ’s memo, and Cynthia Deitle tells me that she can’t recall if FBI agents made an effort to track any of them down.
I asked the FBI for all files that mention Officer Kelly. On one page, from 2009, the special agent assigned to the case lists the groups and agencies they plan to contact: the NAACP, the Taylorsville Police Department, county and state courts for potential records. One agency, though, isn’t listed: the Department of Defense.
If the FBI had made contact with them, they may have gotten hold of that full military police report and have seen these witness statements for themselves.
Then there’s one other witness...who wasn’t on the bus with Roman... but was certainly alive when the FBI looked into the case again. And Ben says the bureau didn’t contact this witness then, or back in 1962.
Ben first met this witness while on a reporting trip in Taylorsville. Cordero suggested he contact a cousin down there, Lloyd Ducksworth...figuring he’d be a good person to talk to.
GREENBERG: So I drove to his house from Taylorsville and when I walked up his driveway to meet him he was standing at the top of the driveway, Lloyd Ducksworth was standing at the top of the driveway. And, um, as he greeted me, another elderly Black man was sort of standing a little bit behind him. And, um, Lloyd explained to me that, um, when he told his wife that I was coming, his wife said, well, you should have Odell come. And I looked at Lloyd questioningly and Lloyd explained that Odell is his brother.
And then he said he was there that night. And my jaw kind of dropped internally because, uh, I had no idea that Odell was alive.
EDWARDS: He very much was. Odell tells Ben that he was there to pick up Roman from the bus station and take him to the hospital to be with his wife Melva.
Ben shared the video of his interview with Odell and Lloyd. They’re sitting across from Ben in Lloyd’s kitchen. Odell is wearing a white T-shirt with a faded image of the stars and stripes that says America The Beautiful.
It’s a bit tough to understand Odell in this recording, but he recounts to Ben that he was still driving toward the bus station when Roman was shot.
ODELL DUCKSWORTH: If I’d been there it probably wouldn’t have happened. But God being God stopped me at the red light.
EDWARDS: Odell didn’t drive alone that night. His mother rode with him. When they got to the bus station, Odell says they saw a small crowd of people...then Roman...who was down on the ground, struggling to speak.
ODELL DUCKSWORTH: When I got there he was down on the ground. He was mumbling something, you know. I still think he was trying to tell me something.
EDWARDS: Odell admits to having a quick temper back then...even chuckling to himself as he tells Ben what he did next in a flash of rage....grab Officer William Kelly’s gun.
ODELL DUCKSWORTH: I grabbed the police gun. And then when I did that my mother jumped in front of me, I throw the pistol on the ground.
EDWARDS: In his words, Odell says Kelly “wasn’t with it.” He tells Ben the officer didn’t say anything to him or his mother. Instead, Odell goes on to say, Kelly just stood there next to Roman’s body, shaking his head, and saying to himself, ‘I wish that had never happened.’
GREENBERG: I asked Lloyd Ducksworth and Odell Ducksworth if they've ever been contacted by the FBI, uh, since the Roman Ducksworth case was reopened and they both said no.
EDWARDS: I sit and listen as Ben tells me this, and all I can think...is how? How did investigators overlook someone like Odell? I don’t have a law enforcement background, but from the outside looking in...how do you miss him...a relative...at the scene of the shooting?
I brought up Odell with former FBI agent and civil rights unit chief Cynthia Deitle.
DEITLE: If he was a witness to the altercation and the shooting, and he was alive and willing to be interviewed and was not interviewed by the FBI, that's horrible. He absolutely should have been interviewed. I have, I mean, that's that, would've, that would've been a, um, a very easy person to identify as, uh, being front and center to, to, um, to interview.
EDWARDS: The FBI talked to Melva Ducksworth, but no other family members, including Cordero.
CORDERO DUCKSWORTH: If they had came and talk, talk to me, and I would have probably tried to get my mother to open up more and trying to find these people that we needed to get information from to help get this thing settled.
But they — they didn't try — they didn't try to contact anybody. And that's the sad part. It’s like people just want this to go away. People just want this to be left in the — in the dark. Just want us to close our eyes and move on.
EDWARDS: That frustration in Cordero’s voice...I’ve heard too many times in my life. Whether it’s a racist killing or not, it’s more likely your case won’t get solved if you’re a Black homicide victim in America. It’s just another statistic...another murder in a bad area...a life that doesn’t generate the same attention you’d get if you were white and from another part of town.
I can’t count the number of families in my hometown of Chicago who — year after year — fight to keep that light shining on the loved one they’ve lost.
Yet, sadly, others — from police, to the media, to even some in their own communities — do, simply, move on.
I feel guilty asking myself this, but in a case like Roman’s, was a second look worth it...if this was the best the government could do?
The Justice Department, to its defense, acknowledges its limitations. In reports to Congress, the DOJ lays out the difficulties inherent in cold cases: deceased subjects and witnesses, faded memories, evidence that got destroyed or went missing.
In one report, the DOJ writes that, “Even with our best efforts, investigations into historic cases are exceptionally difficult, and justice in few, if any, of these cases will ever be reached inside of a courtroom.”
In its most recent report, from 2019, the Justice Department says its goal is to “provide transparency to family members of the victims and to provide the greater public with truthful accounts of these matters.”
When I ask Cynthia Deitle what, to her, the mandate was for cases on the Till Act list, she tells me a story...a story about a meeting she and the FBI put together in Mississippi....and what it made her realize about what she thought she was doing.
DEITLE: I was speaking to a community group about the cold case initiative, and they hated me, absolutely hated me. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I, okay. I get it. I, I know what I represent to them. I represent J Edgar Hoover. I represent the FBI of the 1950s and 60s.’ And it was my turn to speak. And I stood up and I saw arms crossed and eyes rolling. And, you know, people starting to get up and not want to stay and listen to me. And I owned it.
I owned it all. Uh, the first thing that I did was apologize to them about what the FBI had done to them and to their family and to their community. And I pleaded with them and I begged them to look at me for who I was. I was not J. Edgar Hoover. I was not an FBI agent in the ‘60s. I was me and I was here to do something good for them.
EDWARDS: For Deitle, something good meant being able to give the truth to a family like the Duckworths.
DEITLE: I wanted to do as much as we possibly could for each one of the families. And even the ones that, you know, we knew the bad guy was deceased, but did the family know the entire truth? Did they know everything that we knew? Had they been briefed on the investigation?
EDWARDS: So Deitle says she had an idea.
Before cold cases, she had worked in the civil rights unit of the FBI’s New York field office. There, she often worked in victim assistance, and at the end of a case the Justice Department would send a letter to the victim’s family, especially in cases where a prosecution would not go forward.
But when Deitle asked a colleague, she said she discovered that nobody was doing this for the Till Act cases.
DEITLE: I said, I think we should send letters and not just a one-pager, but I think we should summarize everything that had been done to the extent that, you know, we could give as much information as we could.
[00:47:56] We could give a lot, um, and not just send a letter to the family, but. Have this letter hand delivered by FBI agents to the family and sit down with the family and talk to them about what we had found and really just make it personal.
EDWARDS: Most of the letters range from two to five pages. They’re all pretty formal, addressed to the next of kin. They start with: “We are writing to inform you…”
*MONTAGE: voice actors reading different sections of letters*
CORDERO DUCKSWORTH: Dear Mrs. Ducksworth, we are writing to inform you that the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently conducted a review of the circumstances surrounding the death of your husband, Corporal Roman Ducksworth, Jr. on April 9, 1962.
We regret to inform you that we are unable to proceed further with the federal, criminal investigation of this matter because the person responsible for Corporal Ducksworth’s death, Taylorsville, Mississippi Police Department, Officer William Kelly is Deceased. Please accept the sincere condolences on the loss of your husband.
EDWARDS: In their letter from the government, the Ducksworth family is told that William Kelly died in 2004, four years before the FBI started looking into the case.
CORDERO DUCKSWORTH: They wouldn't be able to prosecute him for what happened. So they closed it.
EDWARDS: Nearly 50 years after it happened, the police shooting of Roman Ducksworth, Jr. remained what the official version called it...justified.
The letter to the Ducksworths doesn’t acknowledge the other witness statements — the ones that suggest Roman may have been defending himself...or the account shared by his nephew, Odell, who was there at the scene.
It’s tough listening to Cordero tell me his disappointment about this result.
And then there’s Melva Ducksworth...who could only publicly express her anger after her husband’s death by walking through the front doors of segregated stores in Taylorsville...then forced to move her family over 700 miles away.
For her, Cordero tells me, having the case closed felt like 1962 all over again.
CORDERO DUCKSWORTH: I was more so angry for my mom because she should have not gotten told this way for a second time. This is the second time for her. I felt angry for her.
She said, ‘You know this shouldn't have happened this way. And I asked you guys to leave me out of this because I didn't want to get upset again. I didn't want to be handled like this again. And it happened and I don't want to be bothered no more.’
Those were her exact words.
EDWARDS: Three weeks later, on May 3rd, 2010, Melva Ducksworth passed away.
DUCKSWORTH: I'm sure a lot of the other families probably feel the same way I do. Cause I'm sure that the FBI gave up on them as well as they did my family. So they need to rethink what they're doing and why they're doing it.
EDWARDS: My colleagues and I have spoken with more than two dozen families with a loved one on the Till Act list. For most, whatever optimism they may have felt in the beginning spirals into disappointment in the end.
COREY HINTON: It's not shocking that they reached the determination that they did. But it's unclear what they did to reach that determination. It’s unclear what they could have possibly looked at to reach that determination.
RAYNITA JOHNSON: From what I understand and what they told me, it was just an open-and-shut and closed case because no one was still living.
CHARLES ROBINSON: When I got that call, oh, my goodness, I was on top of the world. And I was saying to myself, ‘Oh, my goodness, my brother’s not forgotten…’ I came home one afternoon from work and there was a business card stuck in the door and it was from the FBI… And I called that number and the person that I spoke to stated that they wanted to inform me that Freddy’s case was closed, there won’t be any way that they can investigate anybody because they were too old or there were nobody still alive. But that was not true.
EDWARDS: Just looking back, do you think more could have been done to manage their expectations in the beginning?
DEITLE: That's a hard question for me to answer. Um, objectively speaking. Yes.
EDWARDS: Former FBI agent Cynthia Deitle.
DEITLE: We should have done more to prepare them for what probably was going to happen at the end. Um, and I will take complete ownership on that. I never wanted to tell a family that when I first met them or when I, you know, had agents go out and meet them, I didn't want to tell them that, Hey, we're going to take a look at this case and chances are nothing's going to happen, but we're going to take a look at it. I wanted to make it better.
EDWARDS: My colleagues and I have talked to reporters who’ve shared their criticisms of Deitle during her time leading the cold case unit. They’ve said they weren’t confident that she was always acting in the best interests of the families or the cases.
DEITLE: Well I will say that they were right to criticize me. In a lot of cases, they were able to get more information than we were. And I was very grateful when that happened.
And you know, a lot of times they would write not complimentary articles about our efforts and the cold case initiative. And I would read them and think, ‘Oh man, if I could only tell you what was going on.’
But oftentimes there was information I could not give them.
EDWARDS: I get the sense Deitle genuinely did want the FBI to do what it could to bring justice in these cases, but it seems it might not have always been clear how to do that.
Deitle transferred from the cold case unit in 2011, after only two years as its leader. A new chief would take over...with fewer open cases...and the clock still ticking on them.
In the case of U.S. Army Corporal Roman Ducksworth, Jr., something else sticks out to me. Something it shares with many other cases on the Till Act list:
The suspect in his killing is a law enforcement officer.
We found that nearly a third of the killings on the list involved law enforcement — and in one case, FBI agents.
When I spoke to Cordero Ducksworth, it was halfway through summer, 2020...a month after the killing of George Floyd...three months after the killing of Breonna Taylor.
EDWARDS: What goes through your mind when you see those videos or read those stories, given your father's story?
DUCKSWORTH: What goes through my mind is every time I see police brutality today, I think about my father. That's when I do think about my father. In fact, I wrote an email to my Congressman, about the issues that's going on today, versus what happened to my father. And I just think that, finally, something is going to happen to these people who got into these jobs, I believe — and that's just me — for the sole purpose of doing what they did to these people, because they can get away with it.
EDWARDS: There were 50 cases on the government’s list that got closed along with Roman Ducksworth’s case in 2010. Half of them, from Mississippi. Many because the DOJ found that all subjects were dead. Some still wondered, with so many cases closed so soon, how thorough was each investigation? Were there clues missed, witnesses overlooked, families or suspects not contacted?
Roman’s case remains largely as it was for all those years — a shooting still labeled justified, with the person who did it no longer alive, and...to his son’s regret...with no way yet to move forward in correcting the record about what happened.
As inseparable as many make truth and justice out to be, I learned a while ago that...more often than we’d like to admit...that’s not the case.
Truth doesn’t always deliver justice, and justice isn’t always delivered with the truth.
I now believe I know the truth about the dispute that led to my grandfather’s murder, but justice has eluded my family for more than 30 years...and I don’t expect that to change.
I do wonder, though — like in Roman’s case and many others — was all that could have been done...done...even if the outcome was the same?
Would it be different...would the lingering feeling of something left undone, left unresolved, still be there if my grandfather and everyone on the government’s list were white?
All I have for that answer are life and history.
And usually, the people who wrote the history of this country...don’t have to ask themselves these questions.
EDWARDS: Next time on Un(re)solved…
ROY AUSTIN: You simply knew that a certain Black male was killed. That’s all you know.
JOHN JACKSON: Where there’s injustice there’s usually a narrative that has been altered.
MICHAEL W. JACKSON: When you’re told you not going to get any money, you don’t forget that.
EMMA JEAN JACKSON: I was told that they were just looking for anybody to shoot, to maim, to beat, to whatever.
SHEILA JACKSON LEE: I can assure you that we were disappointed and angry.