Congressman John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis addresses LSU students Tuesday, October 21, 2014 in the LSU Student Union Theatre. (Photo by Javier Fernandez)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The FBI has ended in 2014 at least three investigations of civil rights era murder cases from a rapidly diminishing list of 112 cases opened eight years ago through its Cold Case Initiative. Only eight or nine cases remain open, including those of Oneal Moore, killed near Bogalusa in 1965, and Wharlest Jackson, killed in Natchez two years later.

The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 officially reopened the 112 cold cases — although the FBI had a few of the investigations underway when the act was passed —  involving the deaths of 126 men and women, all but two African-American. The act will sunset in less than two years.

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a legendary Civil Rights Freedom Rider who sponsored the Emmett Till Act, named for a teenager murdered in the 1950s in northwest Mississippi, is not pleased with how FBI investigations have been conducted, he told the LSU Manship School Cold Case Project team in an interview several months ago.

Most of listed 126 deaths occurred in the South in the 1960s, with roughly seven in 10 occurring in four Deep South states. Mississippi had the highest number — 46 — followed by Georgia with 19, Alabama 17 and Louisiana with 13.

The U.S. Department of Justice oversees the effort, while FBI agents are responsible for investigating leads. A handful of the investigations have prompted prosecutions. Most see this federal effort as the last chance to see justice served in these half-century old cases.

In its fifth annual Till Act report, filed in January 2014, the DOJ says “it has become apparent that due to the many impediments … it is unlikely that any of these remaining cases will be prosecuted.” The investigations require hundreds of personnel hours to sift through old documents and visit the areas of the crimes to gather more information.   The Justice Department has not filed an updated report since then.

The FBI points out that recent national events have kept the Justice Department busy, and the cold case investigations assigned to agents in the FBI’s hate crimes division are handled in addition to their other duties.

But time is running out to interview aging suspects and witnesses. “If you want closure, you want prosecutions, to bring people to trial and bring these families closure,” Lewis warned.

The official DOJ report to Congress, involving progress or case closing during the calendar year 2014, is nearly eight months behind schedule. As of the 2013 report, dated January 2014, 12 cases remained open.

The LSU Manship School’s cold case project team learned in April, however, that another three or four investigations have been terminated, but which ones won’t be known until the annual report for the 2014 year is filed with Congress.

Further, the LSU team has learned that either the Oneal Moore or the Wharlest Jackson case, two of the highest profiled cases remaining, is coming to “a logical end.” When asked which one, federal government sources declined to specify. 

Both murders took place in towns noted for Klan violence. In 1965 in Varnado, a small town near Bogalusa, Oneal Moore and Creed Rogers became the first black sheriff’s deputies in Washington Parish. While on duty, a pickup truck with three white men inside approached the deputies’ vehicle and fired shots into it. Moore, 34, was fatally hit. Rogers was also shot, but survived, losing the sight in one eye as a result.

Ernest McElveen was arrested but eventually released because he did not have a gun in his truck that matched the type of bullets that killed Moore. McElveen died in 2003, but one of the other two men alleged to have been in the truck is reported to be alive.  Given there is no witness or suspect known to be alive in the Wharlest Jackson death, the chance of it being closed this year is high.

Jackson, who worked at the Armstrong Tire Company, was promoted to a supervisory position traditionally held by whites two years after the Moore killing. Jackson was also friends with George Metcalfe — a coworker at the tire plant, president of the local NAACP chapter and a Klan target. The Klan had threatened Jackson not to accept the promotion.

While driving home shortly after accepting the supervisory responsibilities, Jackson’s truck exploded. Someone who knew his route home rigged the truck with a bomb that was triggered by Jackson’s left-turn signal.

FBI agents opened an extensive investigation into the case, which they referred to as “WHARBOM.” The prime suspect was Raleigh “Red” Glover,  Vidalia ringleader of the violent Klan offshoot known as Silver Dollar Group, who worked at the Armstrong tire plant. He was obsessed with killing Metcalfe, according to FBI informants, and had unsuccessfully tried to do so in 1965.     No charges were ever filed, however. Glover died in 1984.

Stephen Kam, chief of the bureau’s Civil Rights Division, told the LSU team last month the bureau will exhaust all logical leads in each of the remaining cases.

When the FBI closes its investigation, the Department of Justice sends a letter to the victim’s next of kin, if they can be identified and located, explaining what the FBI found in its second investigation and why there will not be any adjudication of the case. 

The Till Act expires in 2017, but Kam said his unit would continue to take new information seriously and look into viable leads after the sunset date. The FBI can reactivate any closed case. In fact, several of the Till Act cases were opened and closed a few times as information surfaced.

Cold case investigations were assigned to agents in FBI field offices, who interview those people who might know something about the case. Old local police reports, which investigators found to be surprisingly well executed and detailed, have also been helpful, Kam said.

The FBI closes cases primarily because witnesses are no longer lucid or alive, the suspects are dead, there is insufficient evidence against a suspect, there is an issue of “double jeopardy,” or the investigators determine no hate-crime was committed.  

Lewis believes FBI investigators assigned to the cases have not been aggressive enough, and the DOJ has not kept members of Congress informed about their progress. The FBI has acknowledged over the years that some people are upset about the lack of prosecutions in the cold cases, but investigators insist there are legitimate roadblocks.

Part of the problem is the nature of cases. Congress’ intentions in passing the Till Act notwithstanding, key legal considerations apparently were not made. Most of the reopened cases came from a list kept by a librarian in Alabama who filed newspaper clippings of murders in the 1960s, according to Joe Shapiro of National Public Radio.      

One major difficulty has been that some of the cases originally had been adjudicated unsuccessfully before being reopened. While the FBI has still investigated such cases, not much can be done if juries acquitted the suspect. This is what happened in the famous 1964 Mississippi Burning case, which is still open.

A new prosecution would require a viable suspect, a charge that was a crime at the time of the incident and evidence sufficient to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Potential ways to overcome the double jeopardy barrier include changing the suspect under an alternative statute, moving the case from state to federal courts or the reverse, and changes in interpretation of a law or the law itself. 

In some communities, agents have discovered, people still distrust law enforcement and fear backlash for talking.

However, Kam said passage of time has allowed many people to open up, and he is optimistic about the outcomes of the remaining cases. Even if no one is prosecuted, he said, being able to tell victims’ families what happened is important.

He said that the FBI would continue to investigate cases if warranted past the 2017 deadline.

Last month in Natchez where he was taping a documentary on the Wharlest Jackson murder, a less-than-optimistic Lewis told the LSU Cold Case team that “the money (for the investigations) has sort of run out,” and another appropriation may be needed to investigate properly the last few cases.

“I believe that with the necessary stand from the Department of Justice and more FBI agents appointed to work on these cases, there is a possibility” of getting a getting another conviction,” Lewis said.

“We cannot give up; we cannot give in.”

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