U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said Tuesday that the FBI's reassessment of the Frank Morris murder case in Ferriday is not only important to Concordia Parish and Louisiana, but to the nation.
She's a co-sponsor of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act., S. 535, which gives the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI the ability to reopen unsolved Civil Rights-era murder cases such as Morris', and provide the manpower to investigate and prosecute those cases that can be brought to trial.
But the bill, which has passed the House, is at a standstill in the Senate because of one man -- U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, who has placed a hold on the bill's passage.
Landrieu said the legislation is essential. While one FBI agent has been assigned to reassess the Morris case, more manpower to investigate will be needed at some point. The Emmett Till legislation would provide the additional manpower to see cases like Morris' through at an accelerated pace.
"The FBI's investigation of the unsolved 1964 murder of Frank Morris, who died from burns sustained in an arson attack on his shoe shop, is an important step forward for the Ferriday community," Landrieu said Tuesday. "The perpetrators of this outrageous act must be brought to justice."
"There is a dark cloud in our history," she said. "There was a time when it wasn't safe to go about the normal business of your life because of the color of your skin. We as a nation cannot rest until light is shed on the crimes of the Civil Rights era.
"There is nothing we can do to heal the wounds of the families of those killed," she said, but noted that the Emmitt Till bill "is one step we as a society can take to bring justice to the fullest extent of the law to these heinous criminals."
She said a new look at the Morris murder is the right thing for the federal government to do.
"It is equally important," she said, "that similar cases across the country be investigated and tried to the fullest extent of the law. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act" which would "authorize $13.5 million for the Justice Department's prosecution of unsolved Civil Rights-era murders and will strengthen coordination between federal, state and local law enforcement for more effective investigations of these heinous crimes."
The bill is named for Emmett Till, a black teenager who was murdered while on vacation in Mississippi in 1955.
The legislation creates an Unsolved Crimes Section within the DOJ and an Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Investigative Office within the FBI. It strengthens the coordination of federal, state and local law enforcement to prosecute these crimes. It also requires annual reporting to Congress on the progress of the cases.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut, one of the authors of the Till legislation, denounced Coburn's hold on the bill.
"My colleagues and I have fought long and hard for this bill in order to bring to justice people who have perpetrated heinous crimes based on racial hatred," said Dodd. "It has been a bipartisan effort, and I am angry that one of my colleagues is delaying this bill's passage under false pretense. While we allow another day, another week, another month to pass before enacting this legislation, we allow racist criminals to live the lives of innocent people when they should be apprehended and brought to justice. After so many decades, to further delay justice and solace to the families of the victims of these horrific crimes is simply unimaginable."
The bill passed the House by a vote of 422 to 2 in June and was scheduled to be passed by unanimous consent in the Senate until Coburn placed the hold on the legislation.
In response to Dodd, Coburn said that in "January of this year I notified all 100 Senators that I would withhold unanimous consent for bills that spend new money without offsetting the costs of new spending in another area of the budget. I believe that members of Congress have a moral obligation to do what every American family does when they look at their budget, which is to make choices between competing priorities.
"I have notified Senator Dodd that I would allow his bill to pass and that I support the sentiment of his legislation, even if it is redundant, as long as he pays for it by cutting spending elsewhere. Senator Dodd has refused to accommodate my request even though virtually every American believes the federal budget is replete with examples of waste and inefficiency. For example, the Department of Justice is expected to be sitting on $1.6 billion in unspent funds at the end of this year. If Senator Dodd lifts his own faulty objection to my simple request and shifts some of those unspent funds to this effort – or funds from anywhere in the budget – I have little doubt that this bill will pass the Senate."
But putting the bill on the Senate calendar for a vote would be time-consuming, say Senate insiders, and there would be no guarantee that it would come up for consideration in the near future. Additionally, Coburn conditioned his support by asking for changes to the bill.
However, the Till legislation would be passed immediately if Coburn removed his hold.