WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, passed in 2007 to mandate the reopening of more than unsolved civil rights-era homicide investigations, will expire at the end of fiscal year 2017 unless Congress passes legislation to restore it.
Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, are among co-sponsors of a bill to extend the act’s mandate and scope.
The current law required the Federal Bureau of Investigation to take a fresh look at 113 separate homicide cases involving 126 deaths, including 13 in Louisiana. The new bill would remove the existing requirement that the deaths have occurred before 1970, and may require the FBI to re-examine many other cases.
The Syracuse University College of Law Case Justice Initiative issued the following statement on introduction of reauthorization act:
“For years now, the Cold Case Justice Initiative and the families who have lost loved ones to racial violence, and with whom we share the struggle for justice, have been pressing our government for full accountability.
“We urge Congress to honor the bipartisan commitment it made in 2008 to address the past failure of the legal system: to identify, properly investigate the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of suspicious deaths and prosecute killers who acted during the pre-1969 civil rights era.
“The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act continues and strengthens that mandate. It also reflects the realization that racial violence remains a destructive force and that the pursuit of justice has no deadline and cannot be compromised. The victims of these racial crimes and their families are owed acknowledgement of their loss, accountability of perpetrators for their deaths, and gratitude by our government and entire society for their ultimate sacrifices. Because many of these families have waited for closure 50 years or more we urge Congress to move swiftly to reauthorize the Act.”
The reauthorization bill indefinitely extends the law’s original 2017 deadline.
According to the latest Justice Department report, the FBI was down to eight cases still active, including one in Louisiana. They are:
- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, killed June 21, 1964 in Philadelphia, Miss.
- George and Mae Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcolm, killed July 25, 1946 in Monroe, Ga.
- Rogers Hamilton, killed Oct. 22, 1957 in Lowndes County, Ala.
- Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith, killed Feb. 8, 1968 in Orangeburg, S.C.
- Oneal Moore, killed June 2, 1965 in Varnado, La.
- Mack Charles Parker, killed May 4, 1959 in Pearl River County, Miss.
- William Roy Prather, killed Oct. 31, 1959 in Corinth, Miss.
- Dan Carter Sanders, killed Nov. 18, 1946 in Johnston County, N.C.
Some of those cases may have been unofficially closed in the interim. The LSU Cold Case Project learned that the 1964 shooting death of Oneal Moore in Washington Parish is one of the few cases still open. Moore was the first African-American sheriff’s deputy in the parish,
A group of men wielding rifles and handguns pulled alongside Moore and his partner, Creed Rogers, in a pickup truck and fired into the deputies’ patrol car. Rogers was wounded, blinded in one eye, but survived. One man was arrested in connection with the murder, but no charges were ever filed against him.
The original act is named for Emmett Till, an African American brutally murdered in 1955 near Money, Miss., at the age of 14 for whistling at a white woman. Till’s killers were acquitted of their crime. A year later, they admitted they killed Till in an interview for a national magazine, the double-jeopardy principle protecting them from being recharged.
In the time since many of these cold case crimes were committed most suspects and witnesses have moved away from the area or died. Investigators have no qualms about bringing charges against aged suspect murderers, but they are often too late to prosecute offenders who walked free for years after committing their heinous crimes.
McCaskill says she is confident the new bill empowers the United States Justice Department to prosecute.
“The federal government can always investigate any crime for any civil rights violation,” she recently told the St. Louis American, “but (this) law does give resources and focus where these cases can be prosecuted under civil rights laws.”
Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina also agreed to co-sponsor the bill to help it gain passage.
Stephen Kam, chief of the FBI Civil Rights Division, is one of six administrators who have supervised investigations into the Department of Justice’s Cold Case Initiative since its inception in 2007. The scarcity of prosecutions notwithstanding, Kam told the LSU Manship School Cold Case Project team recently that he considers the program a success.
The program, he says, encouraged reflection on a violent and hateful period of American history and provided an avenue for agents to achieve justice for heinous crimes.
Perhaps most important, the act provides an avenue to closure for many families victimized by racial violence in an area where their grief was all but forgotten. Federal agents and civilian journalists and academics investigated many victims’ stories and were able to tell many families what they think happened to their loved ones and who the FBI believes was responsible.
Lewis, a leader in the Civil Rights Era and sponsor of the Till Act, disagrees. He said he was disappointed in the investigations and lack of prosecutions. “If you want closure you want prosecutions, to bring people to trial and bring these families closure,” Lewis said.
The FBI steadfastly defends its efforts.
Kam believes the FBI’s role as federal investigators charged with investigating cases for prosecutions both empowers and limits the agency in investigating 50-year-old crimes. The FBI has legal jurisdiction to investigate and interview suspects that civilians do not, but it is difficult for agents to pursue cases after suspects are deceased or leads have gone cold.
Criticism ranges from lack of continuity and focus to inconsistent interviewing of surviving witnesses. The latest bill also calls for the formation of a task force to examine existing cases.
The Emmett Till Act directed the Justice Department and its FBI to work with local law enforcement and publish an annual report on their progress. The FBI published its most recent report in May 2015, and is expected to publish another this year, which may indicate the team’s final strategy as it prepares to end its oversight if the act’s revival is not congressionally approved.