LSU Manship News Service
WASHINGTON — Twenty of the 112 cases — representing 27 deaths, five in Louisiana and 10 in Mississippi — reactivated under the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative more than five years ago remain open and the FBI, charged by Congress to bring closure to 126 individual civil rights-era murders, warns that challenges to resolving the crimes become more daunting by the year.
The decision to keep open the final cases was made last month by the U.S. Department of Justice and made known last week.
Witnesses and subjects from the 40- to 50-year-old cases are dying or can’t be found, clouding memories complicate investigations and a reluctance of potentially knowledgeable individual to discuss something that old are barriers FBI agents face as they wade through unsolved cases, the FBI’s Cold Case supervisors recently told the Unsolved Civil Rights-Era Murders Project student team from the LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.
In spite of the time lapse — these killings occurred in the 1950s and 1960s — the FBI stresses anyone who can be proven responsible for racially motivated homicide during that time will still be prosecuted and held accountable, regardless of age or physical condition.
James Ford Seale of Meadville, Miss., for example, was a Klansman more than 70 years old when he was convicted in 2007 for kidnapping Henry Dee and Charles Moore in 1964, who later were found beaten and drown near the Mississippi River. He died of cancer shortly after being sentenced. Seale was prosecuted following FBI investigations.
Statistically, if a murder case isn’t solved in one year, the probability of bringing it to trial plummets.
“Would we like to prosecute every single person who committed these heinous crimes? Absolutely,” said Cold Case Initiative supervisor Heath Janke, who is leaving for another bureau assignment. “But it’s just not possible.”
Another challenge standing in the way of prosecution is that some were tried and acquitted by Klan-sympathizing jurors at the time of the crime. While the evidence may point to justice unserved, double-jeopardy protection kicks in the second time around. Unless different charges are filed, prosecutors constitutionally cannot take the same case back to court.
In solving the decades-old racially related homicides today, the agents must also prove motives for the prosecution to hold up in court.
Cases become inactive — or cold — if prosecution isn’t viable, although a case technically never closes. Janke says if new, credible evidence comes to light after closing a case, the FBI will re-open it. But he cautioned that public perception of what’s credible isn’t always accurate from a legalistic, beyond-reasonable-doubt standard.
In the 92 cases that the Department of Justice has closed, the FBI has delivered more than 60 letters to surviving family members detailing the bureau’s efforts to recreate the night their family member died. Agents hand-deliver these “next-of kin” letters and family members can ask any final questions that linger in their minds. The letters detail what the FBI think happened, whether suspects are dead, or if there is evidence the death was not racially motivated.
“Any time we can sit down with a family member, provide a next of kin letter and try to tell them what happened,” said Janke. “I hope that brings them some closure.”