Cold Case Justice Initiative Reveals Findings from U.S. South
Prof. Janis McDonald from Syracuse University College of Law, along with five law students, talked about cold cases, including missing and murdered individuals from the past, and recent murders of Black men and women today.
CCJI was organized in 2007 in response to the request by families in Louisiana and Mississippi for help getting justice for their loved ones murdered during the civil rights era of the 1960s.
“We discovered that no one had done an accounting of all the people who were killed or disappeared,” Professor McDonald said.
The project started with one family but quickly grew as more and more families asked for help with justice for their family members who were killed by Klan groups, racist individuals, or law enforcement personnel.
In 2007, Prof. McDonald and Prof. Paula Johnson developed a course on Investigating and Reopening Unsolved Civil Rights Era Murders.
Their law students at Syracuse wanted to help, and were put to work organizing and researching thousand of documents from old Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files and court documents. An anonymous donor helped fund the law students’ work.
The next year, Congress enacted the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which will expire in 2017. The Act limits the scope to investigating killings up to 1969.
CCJI is trying to get the Act extended and expanded to cover death that occurred after 1969.
“Many people who call us lost a family member in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 2000’s, and up to today,” Prof. McDonald said.
That Act was a mandate to the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) and the FBI working with local law enforcement to investigate and prosecute these unsolved killings. They were given a 13 million dollar annual budget to get the job done.
The USDOJ has failed to implement methods to identify the full range of victims of domestic racist terrorism from that era. The FBI did a paper investigation and only looked at what the FBI said in the 60’s.
“So what the FBI did was check to see if the suspects were dead and if they were, they closed the case. They closed all but eight of the 126 cases. They did not do a through investigation or talk with the families or new witnesses,” Prof. McDonald said.
The CCJI hired law students from other law schools, including in Atlanta and Washington, DC, in their research efforts.
“The first time we did a search, we found 196 suspicious cases… and we turned them over to the Justice Department and not one has been added to the Justice Department’s cases,” Prof. McDonald explained.
“Now we have found over 300 cases; and 90 are from Georgia , including 37 suspicious police killings,” Prof. McDonald said.
Five law students shared some of the results from their research with the audience.
Brent Lightfoot, a law student at Emory University School of Law, talked about the Moore’s Ford Bridge massacre near the Walton County line, in 1946.
That is where two young Black couples were brutally killed, including one woman who was seven months pregnant. More than sixty shots were fired at the four; and Klan involvement is suspected.
Larissa Moore, Mississippi College of Law, said her research focused on the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The Klan’s goal is to maintain White supremacy and one of their strategies was to join police departments.
In a letter that Moore read, J.B. Stoner, Imperial Wizard of the KKK, said that in the future we will not wear the white robe, but we will be in the police department, in politics, and we will be in the courts of law.
“According to our research, this has proven to be true,” Moore said.
Moore’s research found that former Clayton County Sheriff, W. Loy Dickson, held an office with the Klan while he was sheriff in Clayton County for 22 years, from 1939 to 1964.
She exposed that this year, two police officers were fired in Fruitland Park, Florida, for being member of the Klan. This is the second time in five years that Klansmen have been found in the Fruitland Park Police Department.
“The Klan was present in law enforcement then and still are now,” Moore said.
Another law student, Mandisa Styles, Mercer School of Law, focused on police investigative work that shows similar patterns in the past and today.
“Trends we have seen are that police say individuals were attacking the police, when the evidence clearly show they were shot in the back, or that they were running away for minor infractions or traffic violations, that lead to their death,” Styles said.
Styles cites patterns of incarcerations leading to death, hangings ruled suicides, civil rights activists killed under suspicious circumstances. and arsons leading to death.
“These are some of the pattern we found,” Styles said.
“When I look at the cases we are researching, I see an eerie connection to what is happening today,” Alphonse Williams, a law student at Syracuse University College of Law, said.
“Even if a person allegedly steals a nominal amount of money, it does not give the police officer the right to be the judge, jury, and executioner,” Williams explained.
Shirlise Rivera, Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, also ties in what was happening in the 1960’s to what is happening today. She names church burning then and church burning now. Police shooting of unarmed Black men then and now; hanging then and hanging now.
“This is a circle, we are going through the same things over and over again. We’ve got to cut that circle and straighten it out,” Rivera said.
Mawuli Davis, known as the People’s Lawyer, gave an update on some of the recent killings in the Atlanta area. Davis cited the case of Tramaine Miller shot in the face by Officer Reginald Fisher back in 2011. Miller lived but is permanently disabled. “After five years, the judge has ruled in our favor,” Davis said.
A more recent case involves Nicholas Thomas, who was shot in the back and killed by Officer Ken Owens. Owens fired into the car Thomas was working on.
Davis cited two recent victories, the Baby Bou Bou case and former Black Panther leader, Dhoruba Bin-Wahad. While trying to enter his new home, 69 year old Bin-Wahad was handcuffed and his head was rammed into a cement wall by Officer Ryan Hill.
Grand Juries have indicted both police officers in these two cases.
“There are laws that need to be changed, there are judges that need to be removed, there are prosecutors that need to be removed, there are police officers that need to be fired and incarcerated,” Davis said.
“The law is limited but the power of the people is limitless. The law can be changed, if we are willing to organize and change the law, Davis said.
“We participated with GPJC in going to Geneva, Switzerland and bringing these unresolved killing both from the past and today to the attention of the the United Nations Human Rights Council,” Prof. McDonald said.
Over 113 countries made formal statements recommending that the U.S. work vigorously to address the problem of structural racism and racist police brutality and killings in the U.S.
CCJI has presented recommendations to the President and the U.S. Congress to appoint a permanent Special Commission and Independent Prosecutor to investigate suspicious law enforcement killings of minorities that occurred from 1940 until today.
The silence and efforts to conceal involvement of law enforcement and state officials in minority killings is a continuing problem in the U.S. from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin.