The directors of the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) at Syracuse University last week hand-delivered to U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) officials in Washington a list of 196 additional names of suspicious civil rights era killings, the university announced Wednesday in a press release.
Law professors Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald are co-directors of CCJI. They met with representatives of DOJ and the FBI in Washington on Oct. 16.
In 2007, the FBI announced it was reviewing more than 100-plus unsolved civil rights era homicides. The initial list identified 122 individuals.
"We cannot wait for the Justice Department to do their job," Johnson said. "Over the last four years anytime Janis or I are in a community we are contacted by relatives who believe they lost loved ones due to racial violence. We take their claims seriously and conduct our own investigation and will continue to do so."
According to the professors, the Emmett Till Act requires the Justice Department and the FBI to devote intensive investigations during a 10-year period to address the unsolved civil rights era homicides. The Act was named for 14-year-old Emmett Till who was tortured and brutally murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Sumner, Miss.
However, no indictments have been obtained since the Act became law in November of 2008, the professors report.
“Ever since Congress enacted the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Act of 2008 we have been asking the FBI and the Justice Department to undertake a thorough search of all of the suspicious deaths that occurred during this time frame,” said McDonald. "There has never been a full accounting of all of the people who were killed as the result of Klan and other racial hatred and violence during the era.”
CCJI law student volunteers visited the South over the past five years and uncovered 196 suspicious deaths in 10 states including Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina as well as the District Columbia, according to the professors.
"Identifying suspicious cases is only the first step," says McDonald. "They still need to be thoroughly investigated by authorities and some may not survive that initial investigation but these families need to know people care enough to put in the time, resources and effort. They want and deserve answers."
CCJI reports that 75 of the deaths on its list involved police shootings under questionable circumstances.
Johnson said “these law enforcement-related deaths need to be re-examined in light of policies and practices at the time. Many Klan organizations infiltrated law enforcement as a way to intimidate the black community and commit acts of violence with impunity.”
She said the list contains multiple names of individuals who were shot in the back when police alleged they were running after what appeared to be minor burglaries. In one instance the burglary involved five packs of cigarettes, according to CCJI's research.
The Cold Case Justice Initiative was launched to assist the family of Frank Morris of Ferriday, who was fatally burned during the arson of his shoe shop in 1964. Before his death four days later, Morris provided the FBI a description of his two white assailants. The arson was believed to have been a joint effort by the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement.
CCJI and the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday began working together on the Morris case in 2007. In January 2011, the Sentinel reported that former relatives and the son of Arthur Leonard Spencer of Rayville said Spencer had admitted participating the Morris arson. Spencer has denied the allegations.
A month later in February 2011, a grand jury convened in Concordia Parish to investigate the murder. CCJI reports that despite this new evidence, the Justice Department has yet to announce any progress in the case.
Justice Department officials will not comment on the Morris case because they say it is an open investigation.
Johnson and McDonald said that suspected perpetrators, witnesses and family members who can provide critical evidence in the cold cases are dying off each year.