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Cold Cases: Scores Of U.S. Civil Rights Murders Remain Unsolved


Over a half a century ago, three young civil rights workers in Mississippi - James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner - were killed by members of the KKK. This week, the Mississippi attorney general declared the case officially closed, and there are many unsolved civil rights-era cases like this. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now to talk more about them. Debbie, welcome back to the program.


CORNISH: Now, the Department of Justice has a Cold Case Initiative that's looked up more than a hundred racially motivated unsolved murders since 2007. Where do things stand now?

ELLIOTT: Well, the FBI says it has looked into a total of 112 cases. Most of those are now closed. Only seven remain open, active investigations, and only a handful have been successfully prosecuted.

CORNISH: What are the barriers not just reopening a case but to taking it to trial?

ELLIOTT: You know, the passage of time. There is little evidence from a lot of these cases - agents working sometimes only from newspaper clippings or a list of names. Both suspects and witnesses have long since died. Those who are still living - their memories have faded. These are things that happened a really long time ago. So it's really hard to build a case that you can take to trial or even take to a grand jury and get an indictment.

And we have to remember just the brutality of the time. A lot of these crimes were never investigated because local and state authorities at the time were very much against the civil rights movement. And many times, local law enforcement was the same as the Ku Klux Klan.

CORNISH: And what happens when authorities decide to close a case and just stop investigating?

ELLIOTT: When investigators hit a dead end, they typically send a letter to family members letting them know and giving them the information that they have discovered during the probe. This is all under the Emmett Till Act which Congress passed in 2008 helping to fund these investigations. That law of course named for Emmett Till, a Mississippi murder victim, and that law is now up for reauthorization in Congress.

CORNISH: When you look over these cases, is there a common thread to the ones that have resulted in trials and prosecutions?

ELLIOTT: There are a couple. Certainly when there is an FBI record and an investigation from back in the day, it's very helpful, when evidence was preserved or when there was testimony that they can use again and when people are still living, when witnesses are around.

We have to note here that journalists have really been a big catalyst in all of this, two in particular - Jerry Mitchell at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La., which is just across the Mississippi River from Natchez, Miss.

They are part of The Civil Rights Cold Case Project. It's a collaboration that investigates these cases. And they go out, and they find people who remember what happened. These are clearly long shots, we must note.

I spoke with Richard Cohen at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and he said just investigating these cases can give families a sense that something was done. He said, quote, "justice for the few can be the proxy for all."

CORNISH: Finally, Debbie, what about the cases that remain open? Are these the only unsolved cases out there?

ELLIOTT: There are seven cases that are still open according to the FBI. They date from the '40s, '50s and '60s all around the South. But there are also cases that aren't on that list. In fact just last year I reported on an effort in rural Tennessee to get authorities to look into the 1940 murder of NAACP leader Elbert Williams. Despite the work of local activists there, state and federal authorities have yet to open an investigation.

So for relatives, I think just because your loved one's name is not on the list doesn't mean that you're not still looking for justice here.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, thanks for sharing your reporting.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.