By Stanley Nelson & Xerxes Wilson
Officials with the FBI's Cold Case Unit, which investigates civil rights era cold cases, says that of the 111 cases reviewed only 31 are now being actively pursued.
The murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris in 1964 is one of the 31 cases still open and is presently the subject of a parish Grand Jury investigation. The FBI said six cold case murders have been referred to state judicial systems for potential prosecution.
FBI Civil Rights Unit Chief Eric F. Thomas and supervising special agents David Rogers and Heith Janke met in Washington on Oct. 14 with LSU senior journalism students working with the Sentinel on its cold case work.
Janke, who did not speak specifically about Morris or other cold cases, said many of the bureau's current breaks are from family members or acquaintances that remember potential suspects speaking about the murder without any other corroborating evidence, which makes creating a legally tight case difficult.
The bureau says it is hampered by dwindling evidence and aging witnesses, and its cold case initiative is racing against the steady attrition of time on the 31 remaining murder investigations dating back to the '50s and '60s, said Janke.
In February 2006, the FBI launched its review of unsolved civil rights-era murders, many of which were believed committed by Klansmen. The bureau looked at more than 111 referrals from 56 regional FBI offices – including those in New Orleans, Jackson, Miss., and Memphis – concerning racially motivated murders prior to 1970.
The DOJ’s annual report on these cold cases, mandated by the federal Emmett Till Act of 2007, was sent to Congress in mid-October for review before being made public.
Nearly half of the cases the FBI says it is investigating have been closed because original suspects are dead. In these cases, investigators compile a report and personally meet with the victim's next of kin to explain what they believe happened, Janke explained.
Even when there are people who still remember the situations and could perhaps lead the bureau to clues, officials indicate evidence that can withstand judicial scrutiny is difficult to come by.
Janke said one of the major hindrances when seeking an indictment is the "CSI effect." Named after the popular primetime television drama, Janke said jurors have unreasonably heightened expectations about DNA and scientific evidence because of those fictional shows.
"Back then there was a lack of technical evidence," Janke told the LSU journalism students. "Evidence gets lost or destroyed."
The Sentinel has learned that's the case with one piece of evidence concerning the murder of Morris, who died in the Ferriday hospital four days after the arson. He suffered third degree burns from head to toe.
But before his death, he was interviewed by the FBI's Paul Lancaster, now retired in Baton Rouge, who in the 1960's was Senior Resident Agent in the bureau's Alexandria, La., office. Lancaster recorded his interview with Morris, who described seeing two men outside his shop the night of the arson. But Morris' voice has gone silent. According to a bureau response to a Freedom of Information request, the FBI destroyed Lancaster's recording in the 1970s.
The bureau says it is also hindered because potential witnesses are dying. In the Morris case at least two witnesses who were interviewed extensively about the murder in the 1960s, Klansmen E.L. McDaniel and Tommie Lee Jones, died after the Morris case was reopened in 2007. Jones was a suspect in the 1960s who denied involvement but pointed a finger at Concordia Parish deputy Frank DeLaughter, records show.
McDaniel, citing health issues, declined to discuss the Morris case with the Sentinel in 2008. He died Feb. 8, 2011, the day the parish Grand Jury convened to begin its probe into the murder.
In another local cold case, Joseph Edwards, a 25-year-old employee at the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia, vanished six months prior to the Morris murder. A lead suspect in Edwards' disappearance and apparent murder at the time was a probation officer named James Goss, who died in Shreveport at the age of 89 two years ago.
Goss' daughter, Kay Goss, told the Sentinel her father said several times that DeLaughter and deputy Bill Ogden tried to pin Edwards' disappearance on him. She said when her dying father thought of the deputies he would speak two words: "Those bastards."
She also said her father was not interviewed by the FBI about Edwards during its current initiative.
There are also cases which were found not to be racially motivated and others that fall outside the bureau's jurisdiction or in which the statute of limitations has expired, Janke said.
The Emmitt Till Act gives the FBI authority to investigate any racially motivated homicides prior 1970. For the FBI to prosecute, however, the slayings must involve explosives, occur on federal lands, or have an interstate aspect, such as a victim or weapon being transported across a state line. Otherwise, the findings are turned over to the state for potential prosecution.
Janke said the FBI still needs tips from the public to solve these old cases, noting that "our hope is as people grow older they will want to clear their consciences."
Residents of Louisiana and Mississippi with information are urged to contact either the New Orleans (504-816-3000) or Jackson, Miss. (601-948-5000), FBI division office.