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No trials yet for FBI's civil rights initiative

Deborah Hastings | 9/17/2008, 5:11 a.m.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (center) speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington on...
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (center) speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington on Feb. 27, 2007, to announce a new partnership aimed to solve cold cases from the civil rights era. (From left): National Urban League Executive Director Stephanie Jones; FBI Director Robert Mueller; Gonzales; NAACP Chief Policy Officer John Jackson; and Richard Cohen from the Southern Poverty Law Center. AP /Pablo Martinez Monsivais

WASHINGTON — Flanked by officials from the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center, FBI Director Robert Mueller last year announced with considerable fanfare a new partnership between his agency and civil rights organizations.

The goal: To bring justice in long-ignored murders from the civil rights era.

The outcome: Not one case has been prosecuted under the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative, which actually began two years ago with no fanfare at all.

The civil rights leaders present at Mueller’s February 2007 news conference — John Jackson of the NAACP, who now works for a private firm, and Richard Cohen, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center — have come to question the government’s motives.

“I’ve been disappointed that more cases have not been brought,” Cohen said. “I worried that too many people would get their hopes up. I don’t want to be part of a show.”

Some of the killings occurred up to 60 years ago. Evidence was sometimes destroyed to prevent further investigating. Some crime-scene samples — clothing, hair strands, blood stains — were lost. Memories have faded, and witnesses have died. Of those still alive, some are afraid to come forward even now. Others are ashamed, unwilling to bear witness against relatives who did the Ku Klux Klan’s bidding.

Yet some killers have been convicted — before the FBI’s new initiative was announced. Those successes were due in large part to the relentless efforts of survivors, journalists and prosecutors, and to the declassification of secret documents from the segregationist Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an agency that spied on blacks and civil rights workers and was connected to racial killings. Commission records were finally released in 1998 after a 21-year legal battle.

Since 1989, state and federal authorities have made about 29 arrests, leading to 23 convictions, according to civil rights organizations and others. Those cases include:

• Byron De La Beckwith’s conviction in 1994 of murdering Medgar Evers, the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, shot to death on his doorstep some three decades earlier.

• Edgar Ray Killen’s 2005 conviction on three counts of manslaughter for orchestrating the killings of civil-rights workers. The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — kidnapped and shot to death by Klan members — were the basis of the 1989 film “Mississippi Burning.”

But for each conviction there are many killings that have never been prosecuted or even fully investigated.

Nineteen years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group based in Montgomery, Ala., began compiling a list of those unsolved killings. It is called “The Forgotten,” and contains more than 70 names dating to the 1940s. Center researchers created case files for each. Some contain a wealth of public records and statements. Some hold a single story clipped from a Northern newspaper.

It was from those files, as well as materials submitted by the NAACP and others, that the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative found 95 cases to review.

“We cannot turn back the clock. We cannot right these wrongs. But we can try to bring a measure of justice to those who remain,” Mueller said last year, joined by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.