Justice department to reopen hundreds of civil rights era cold cases

Published: March 16, 2013

When Cold Cases Stay Cold

FERRIDAY, La. — In the spring of 1965, the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington received a letter from Concordia Parish in northeastern Louisiana. Addressed to the bureau’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, the letter pleaded for justice in the killing of a well-respected black merchant.
A few months earlier, the businessman, Frank Morris, had come upon two white men early one morning at the front of his shoe-repair shop, one pointing a shotgun at him, the other holding a canister of gas. A match was ignited, a conflagration begun, and Morris died four days later of his burns without naming the men, perhaps fearing retribution against his family.
The letter expressed grave concern that the crime would go unpunished because the local police were probably complicit. “Your office is our only hope so don’t fail us,” it concluded. It was signed:
“Yours truly, The Colored People of Concordia Parish.”

Associated Press: NATCHEZ, MISS., FEB. 28, 1967 The scene at a car bombing that killed Wharlest Jackson, one of many racially motivated and unsolved crimes from the era.

Nearly five decades later, the Justice Department has written back — not directly to the family of Mr. Morris or to the black community of Concordia Parish, but to dozens of other families who lost loved ones during this country’s tumultuous and violent civil rights era.
Several years ago, the F.B.I. began reopening cold cases from that era — 112 at last count — raising hopes among some for justice. In all but about 20, though, the families of the long dead have received letters, often hand-delivered by F.B.I. agents, that say their cases have been closed, there is nothing more to be done — and please accept our condolences.
Simultaneously intimate and bureaucratic, these letters serve as epistolary echoes of an increasingly distant time. To some, they reflect the elusiveness of resolution in cases decades old; to others, they represent another missed opportunity for a full accounting of what happened, and why.
Grace Hall Miller, a retired school board member in Newton, Ga., received one of these letters two years ago. It recounted a day in March 1965 that she hardly could have forgotten, when a man named Cal Hall Jr. fatally shot her husband, Hosie Miller, a farmer and church deacon, in a dispute over cows. Mr. Hall, who was white, shot Mr. Miller, who was black, in the back.
The letter recalled the notorious travel of the case, from repeated failures by grand juries to indict Mr. Hall to a “disproportionately white” jury’s finding against the Miller family in a wrongful-death lawsuit. It also summed up what the F.B.I. had done after reopening the case: interviews with Ms. Miller and a family friend, a check with the local sheriff’s office, and a search of county death records.
“After careful review of this incident, we have concluded that the now deceased Cal Hall Jr. acted alone when he shot and killed your husband, and therefore, we have no choice but to close our investigation,” the letter said. “We regret that we cannot be of further assistance to you. Again, please accept our sincere condolences for the loss of your husband” — a man who had died nearly a half-century earlier.

Courtesy of Concordia Sentinel—-STILL OPEN Frank Morris, wearing a visor at center, suffered fatal burns when his shoe-repair shop in Ferriday, La., was set on fire in 1964. No one has ever been prosecuted for his death.

Ms. Miller, now 80, said that she had placed judgment in God’s hands long ago, and could not understand why the F.B.I. had reopened the case to give it only a cursory review. “I guess they were just trying to make a show,” she said.
One of Ms. Miller’s daughters is Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from her job with the federal Agriculture Department in 2010 after a conservative blogger edited a video of a public appearance to make her appear racist. The White House later apologized, and she was offered a new job.
“It’s very unsatisfying,” said Ms. Sherrod, one of six children. “Even after all these years, the system wouldn’t do anything. We didn’t get justice.”
Adam S. Lee, the chief of the F.B.I. section overseeing civil rights, said that the bureau had been rigorous in pursuing these cold cases, following any evidence that might lead to prosecutions. But, he added, “That doesn’t bring the emotional closure that the public wants, or needs, in cases like this.”
Unsolved Crimes
In 2006, the F.B.I. began a cold-case initiative that it described as a comprehensive effort to investigate racially motivated murders from the civil rights era. That effort became a mandate two years later when Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named after the 14-year-old black boy who was tortured and killed in Mississippi in 1955, for supposedly flirting with a white woman.
From the outset, the government cited the formidable challenges it faced: the limited federal jurisdiction in some cases, the statute of limitations in others, and, of course, time’s passage. Suspects and witnesses die. Evidence is lost. Memories dull.

Sarah Beth Glicksteen for The New York Times—-CLOSED Grace Hall Miller, 80, was widowed in 1965 when her husband, Hosie Miller, was shot by a white farmer, who was never punished.


Champions of the cold-case initiative debated its primary purpose. Was it justice, which would mean chasing those few cases with the highest likelihood of prosecution? Or was it truth, which would mean pursuing the facts in scores of cases, no matter that the principal players might be dead?

“Truth was the more realistic goal,” said Alvin Sykes, a human rights worker and an early champion of what became the Till Act, who envisioned a broad, aggressive effort to identify and investigate old civil rights cases. But he lowered his expectations, he said, once the narrower scope of the initiative became clear.

The law authorized tens of millions of dollars for the project, but so far only $2.8 million has come through. In addition, some critics say that the expansive list of cases compiled by the F.B.I. — ranging from the well known to the more obscure, culled from old news clippings — resulted in the quick closing of most cases and the draining of resources from the few cases in which a prosecution might have been achieved.

Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which provided the F.B.I. with some possible cases, recalled some unease at the time about publicizing so many cases with very low chances of resolution. “I was worried about giving people false hope,” he said.

Limited Results

Families who held out hope for prosecution have been disappointed. In a report to Congress in October, the Justice Department acknowledged the low yield from what it always considered to be long-shot efforts to develop cases worthy of prosecution.

The report said the F.B.I.’s cold-case initiative had resulted in one successful federal prosecution, of James Ford Seale, who was convicted in 2007 in connection with the deaths of two young black men in 1964. It also said the F.B.I. had assisted in the 2010 state prosecution of a former Alabama trooper, James Bonard Fowler, in the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old civil rights marcher who died after a confrontation with the police in 1965.

Left unsaid in the report was that these prosecutions were prompted in large part by the work of investigative journalists like Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., John Fleming of the The Anniston Star in Alabama, and David Ridgen, a Canadian documentary filmmaker.

Also left unsaid was how the Justice Department’s approach and commitment to the endeavor have been questioned by some of those who have been toiling in the same troubled fields of history.

“That’s what we’ve been struggling with for the last six years,” said Janis L. McDonald, a law professor at Syracuse University and a co-director of the law school’s Cold Case Justice Initiative. “We’ve been asking for a regional task force, or for them to go out and say how many people really were killed. Neither has been the focus of the Justice Department.”

But F.B.I. officials said that in many cases people were interviewed, often repeatedly, during the original murder investigations. With memories fading as the decades pass, they said, those initial interviews often determine whom to interview or reinterview in the current investigation.

“I have not seen a perfunctory approach in any of these cases,” said Mr. Lee, the F.B.I. section chief.

Retellings, and Condolences

Then there are the letters.

As the Justice Department closed cases, F.B.I. agents were sent to hand-deliver letters of explanation to the next of kin. Sometimes, relatives could not be found or simply “didn’t want to hear from us,” Mr. Lee said.

Copies of dozens of these letters were given to The New York Times by James Shelledy, a journalist in residence at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, and a team of journalism students who have been working on a project involving unsolved killings from the civil rights era. They obtained the letters through the Freedom of Information Act.

Here is the case of Clinton Melton, a gas station attendant in Glendora, Miss., who found himself in a dispute with a customer, Elmer Otis Kimbell, over the amount of gas he had just pumped. Mr. Kimbell vowed to kill Mr. Melton, and did just that, shooting the unarmed Mr. Melton three times with a shotgun.

“On March 13, 1956, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Mr. Kimbell, despite the weight of the testimonial and physical evidence contradicting Mr. Kimbell’s claim that he acted in self-defense,” the government wrote in a letter to Mr. Melton’s family. “Mr. Kimbell died in February 1985.”
Here is the case of Jasper Greenwood, whose decomposed body was found next to his car in Vicksburg, Miss. According to the F.B.I., it turned out that Mr. Greenwood was with a married woman in a “lover’s lane” when he suffered a fatal heart attack — and she fled the scene.
Here is the case of John Earl Reese, who was dancing with friends in a cafe in Longview, Tex., when gunfire sprayed from a passing car killed him and injured two cousins. Two young white men, Perry Dean Ross and Joe Simpson, were eventually indicted, although charges against Mr. Simpson were dropped when he agreed to testify against Mr. Ross — who was given a suspended sentence on a murder conviction.
The F.B.I. closed its resurrected investigation because it concluded that Mr. Ross and Mr. Simpson, both long dead, had acted alone. Still, Joyce Nelson Crockett, one of the cousins wounded that night, expressed gratitude for the government’s interest.
“It did more good than no good,” Ms. Crockett, who is 70 and in poor health, said of the letter. “To know it was important enough to look into, because what they did was wrong. They had no reason to do it. They were youngsters, just as I was.”
Here, too, is the case of Herbert Orsby, a New Orleans boy of 14 whose body was found in 1964 in the Big Black River near rural Pickens, Miss., where he had been visiting his grandmother. Some civil rights workers said they had seen a young man matching Herbert’s description being forced into a pickup truck at gunpoint, and there were rumors that Herbert had been wearing a T-shirt bearing the acronym for the Congress of Racial Equality: C.O.R.E.
But an F.B.I. investigation at the time found no evidence of foul play and concluded that the boy had drowned. For years afterward, lingering suspicions were rarely discussed within the Orsby family.
“Back in those days in Mississippi, you didn’t stir up stuff,” said Roy Orsby, one of Herbert’s brothers, now 60 years old.
After 46 years of not stirring up stuff, Mr. Orsby received a visit from an F.B.I. agent who said the bureau was looking into the case. A few weeks later, Mr. Orsby said, he received a letter.
It said agents had retrieved the files from the original 1964 investigation, contacted Mississippi officials and two civil rights organizations, conducted searches of historical records at libraries and on the Internet, and “solicited information about the case via a press release.”
The conclusion: “After careful review of this incident, there is insufficient evidence to indicate that your brother’s death constitutes a racially motivated homicide.”
The experience was both brief and strange. “I figure, well there it goes again, back under the bridge,” Mr. Orsby said. “Never did find out what happened.”
Still, Margaret A. Burnham, a law professor and the founder of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Program at the Northeastern University School of Law, said these letters mattered, even if devoid of resolution.
“Setting aside whether the F.B.I. could have done more, I respect the dignity with which they are accepting responsibility for letting families know how justice failed them,” Ms. Burnham said. “Whether it’s a sufficient thing, I don’t know. But it’s a necessary thing.”
Still Unresolved
As difficult as it might be to receive a letter saying that the investigation into your loved one’s death is being closed without a satisfying conclusion, there is the different pain of having no resolution at all, as in the 20 or so cold cases that remain open.
Three of them concern killings that took place on or near a 12-mile stretch of Highway 84, from here in Ferriday to the Mississippi city of Natchez, across the Mississippi River. All three have been extensively investigated by Stanley Nelson, a reporter for a local weekly newspaper, The Concordia Sentinel, who said the F.B.I. had failed to give the cold cases the proper commitment because it had not assigned agents to investigate them full time.
“There’s no way they can devote the time that’s really necessary to resolve these cases,” said Mr. Nelson, who believes that the cases are open in part because he has kept publicizing them. “They’re not out in the communities canvassing, talking to people, knocking on doors, running people down.”
This part of the South is haunted by unanswered questions.
In Ferriday, all that remains of the shoe store that was burned down in 1964 — with its black owner, Frank Morris, held inside at gunpoint — is a concrete slab in an empty lot. No one has ever been arrested, but in recent years there have been grand jury investigations, most likely prompted by Mr. Nelson’s reports that a suspect is still alive.
A few miles southeast on Highway 84, in a place called Vidalia, is the Budget Inn motel. A half-century ago, it was called the Shamrock Inn, where the Silver Dollar Group — an extreme faction of the Ku Klux Klan — used to meet in the coffee shop, and where, in 1964, a black porter named Joe Ed Edwards was said to have kissed the motel’s night clerk, a white woman.
Two days later, Mr. Edwards disappeared, for good.
And a few miles farther on, across the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge in Mississippi, a plaque marks the spot where, in 1967, a Chevy pickup driven by Wharlest Jackson, a Korean War veteran, blew up. He had just accepted a promotion to a supervisory — that is, white — position at a tire plant.
F.B.I. agents soon swarmed the area, infiltrating the Silver Dollar Group and forcing an end to its campaign of terror, though without any arrests. The children of Mr. Jackson do not expect the cold-case initiative to change the cold absence of resolution, and have come to see the government’s initiative as worse than nothing.
“Why they open it and why they open up wounds, I don’t know,” said Debra Sylvester, one of Mr. Jackson’s daughters. “My mama always said all you can do is pray. One day they’re going to have to give an account. One day they’re going to have to give an account to their maker.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Lee, of the F.B.I., said the bureau would probably close more cases by June. When asked whether criminal charges might be filed, he said, “Likely not.”

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