Federal and parish prosecutors are combining forces in the investigation of the 1964 murder of black Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris and the case may go before the parish Grand Jury.
U.S. Atty. Donald Washington of Lafayette and Concordia Dist. Atty. Brad Burget told The Concordia Sentinel today (Wednesday) the joint probe may also include the appointment of a federal attorney as an assistant district attorney in Concordia Parish.
"The DA's potential for a murder investigation is appealing to us," said Washington, who along with First Asst. U.S. Atty. William J. Flanagan of Shreveport met with Burget in Vidalia two weeks ago. Cynthia Deitle, Chief of the FBI's Cold Case Unit, also took part in the meeting by phone from Washington.
All pledged their resolve to Burget in seeing the case through.
The involvement of the DA's office marks the first time since Morris was murdered that local authorities will take an active role in this case. Morris, 51, died four days after the arson of his shop on Dec. 10, 1964, in what the FBI has termed a racially-motivated murder involving the Ku Klux Klan.
"Thank God," said Morris' granddaughter, Rosa Williams of Las Vegas, when notified of the announcement. "My heart is beating so fast right now."
Williams was 12-years-old and living with her aunt in Ferriday just a few blocks from the shoe shop when it was torched almost 45 years ago. She said since that time she and her family had almost lost hope that the murder would be solved, that her grandfather's killers would be identified and the motive revealed.
"I pray about this all the time," she said. "God answers prayers."
Burget, who is 35 and elected to the Seventh Judicial District DA's post last year, was born in 1973 -- nine years after the murder. The district includes both Concordia and Catahoula parishes.
He said he had no hesitation in bringing the case forward once he discussed the matter with Washington and other officials.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," Burget said. "Once we receive the case file we'll move forward and cooperate with the federal government to resolve Mr. Morris' murder. It's very interesting due to the age of the case."
"We are heartened by this news," said Syracuse professor of law Paula Johnson, who along with Syracuse law professor Janis McDonald, directs the university's Cold Case Justice Initiative. "It is an important development that the case will be presented to the grand jury. Family and community members have waited a long time for such official consideration."
While there is no guaranteed outcome, Johnson says "it signals confidence by law enforcement that those who committed such atrocious crimes will be held to answer in the legal system. It is also significant that the U.S. Attorney and the District Attorney are cooperating to ensure that their combined efforts will bring about long-awaited resolution and accountability."
Washington, 54, has served as U.S. Attorney for the 42-parish Western District since his appointment by President George Bush in 2001.
"Federal statues covering what happened (to Morris) in 1964 -- while they exist today -- were not plentiful in the 1960s," said Washington, who has taken a hands-on role in directing the investigation since it was reopened two years ago. "Murder has no statue of limitations. The DA has original jurisdiction over murder in the state of Louisiana."
He said his office has offered Burget "our investigative and prosecutorial resources."
Federal charges in the case are also possible, said Washington.
"If some type of use of an explosive, bomb-type device or accelerant was used and involved interstate commerce then those charges could be made," he said. "If we have a viable federal charge such as obstruction of justice or lying to a federal agent, the federal Grand Jury could be a valuable tool for us."
Before he died at the Concordia Parish Hospital four days after the arson, Morris told visitors and FBI agent Paul Lancaster that he was awakened by breaking glass on the night of the fire, and encountered two men at the front of the store. He said one man held a shotgun on him, told him to "get back in that shop, nigger," and the other man, who was holding a gasoline can, threw a match igniting the shop.
Morris, who identified the men only as "two white friends," escaped out the back door in flames, suffering third degree burns from head to toe, and stripped naked by the fire with the exception of the waist band of his underwear and neck band of his t-shirt. Witnesses said his injuries were so severe that skin and flesh peeled from his body and that he left bloody footprints everywhere he stepped.
More than 12 men identified as suspects at the time are dead, said Washington.
Documents reveal that FBI agents believed the Silver Dollar Group, a militant Klan cell formed at the Vidalia Shamrock Motel cafe in 1964, was responsible for Morris' murder and possibly two others -- the 1964 kidnapping, torture and murder of Vidalia Shamrock employee Joseph "Joe-Ed" Edwards on July 12, 1964, and the car bombing that killed Wharlest Jackson Jr. on Feb. 27, 1967, after he got off work at the Armstrong Tire plant in Natchez.
Some members of the Silver Dollar Group and other Klansmen identified in documents as proponents of violence against blacks at the time are still alive.
Washington said he discussed with Burget "the full spectrum of his office's capability in becoming involved, including the use of our investigators and cross designation of having an assistant federal attorney being named as an assistant DA in Concordia Parish if a state prosecution is the best way to proceed."
He said Burget will soon be provided the 900-plus pages of FBI documents on Morris' murder.
"The DA will receive the full range of investigative material compiled since 1964," Washington said, adding that Burget has been "very accommodating. We welcome him and his office to our team."
A reward of $10,000 is being offered by the FBI for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Morris' killers.
"We've interviewed a number of folks, have done a lot of work on this case and have a fair amount of work still in front of us," said Washington. "We still are hopeful that members of the public will make an effort to jog their memories to come forward."
Rosa Williams' memories of her grandfather, who she called "Papa Frank," are of an outgoing man "who loved to laugh" and make everyone else laugh, too. When Williams was baptized in Ferriday in the early 1960s, both Morris and her aunt, Helen "Polly" Branch, who was blind, were in attendance.
Just before the baptism, Morris spoke up: "You all stand back so Polly can see."
"He always had me laughing," Williams said.
Anyone with information concerning the arson murder of Morris is urged to call the New Orleans FBI Field Division, 504-816-3000, or the Monroe Resident Agency, 318-387-0773.