LSU’s unsolved civil rights murders project team speak with the FBI’s top agents in the bureau’s Civil Rights unit, including Erick Thomas, second from left. Credit: Manship School of Mass Communication
LSU’s unsolved civil rights murders project team speak with the FBI’s top agents in the bureau’s Civil Rights unit, including Erick Thomas, second from left. Credit: Manship School of Mass Communication

By Lex Wilson | LSU Student

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Time is waning for civil rights era unsolved murder investigations and the FBI's Civil Rights Unit Chief Eric F. Thomas would like citizens in Louisiana, Mississippi and other southern states with knowledge of such crimes to come forth with relevant information before the cases becomes moot.

Hampered by dwindling evidence and aging witnesses, the bureau's initiative is racing against the steady attrition of time on the 31 remaining murder investigations dating back to the '50s and '60s, said Heith Janke, supervisory special agent for the unit.

The cold case civil rights murders project team from LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication, working independently from official investigations, met here Oct. 14 with Thomas, Janke and Civil Right Unit Supervising Special Agent David Rogers to discuss the current status of cases relevant to Louisiana and southern Mississippi.

The FBI's investigative initiative in February 2006 reopened murder cases, most with Ku Klux Klan involvement, that had gone cold. It reviewed more 111 referrals from 56 regional FBI offices – including those in New Orleans, Jackson, Miss., and Memphis – concerning racially motivated murders prior to 1970.

Though FBI agents face a myriad of challenges when opening cases that proved unsolvable at the time the crimes were committed, primarily due to witnesses fearing KKK retaliation, Janke notes six cases have been referred to state judicial systems for potential prosecution.

As of the start 2011 year, FBI investigators were still prying into two other high profile murders of African-Americans from the Ferriday-Natchez area – Wharlest Jackson of Natchez, an Armstrong Tire mid-level manager blown up in his pickup, and Joseph Edwards, a porter at a defunct house of prostitution in Vidalia who the Klan thought was focusing amorous attention on a white woman in 1965.

The cases, however, may be among those moving back to inactive status on this year's Department of Justice annual report on civil rights era murder cases under investigation. The DOJ's annual report, mandated by the federal Emmitt Till Act of 2007, was sent to Congress last week for review before being made public.

Time remains an unrelenting obstacle in these cases, causing investigators to end inquiries 47 percent of them because original suspects are deceased.

In these cases, investigators compile a report and personally meet with the victim's next of kin to explain what they believe happened, Janke explained.

The bureau also is hindered by potential witnesses and people who remember such crimes is slowly dying off – or who may not be aware that the FBI still is looking into these cases, which is why Thomas indicated the FBI is looking for public help.

"We do care, but I have to stress these are the limitations we face," Janke said. "People continue to die, but until they're all dead there's a chance."

Even when there are people who still remember the situations and could perhaps lead the bureau to clues, evidence that can withstand judicial scrutiny is difficult to come by.

"Back then there was a lack of technical evidence," Janke said. "Evidence gets lost or destroyed."

Janke said one of the major hindrances when seeking an indictment is the "CSI effect." Named after the popular primetime television drama, Janke said jurors have unreasonably heightened expectations about DNA and scientific evidence because of those fictional shows.

Considering much of the bureau's current breaks are from family members or acquaintances that remember potential suspects speaking about murder without any other corroborating evidence, Janke says, creating a legally tight case is difficult.

Further, there are cases which are found not to be racially motivated and others fall outside the bureau's jurisdiction or in which the statute of limitations has run.

The EmmittTill Act of gives the FBI authority to investigate any racially motivated homicides prior 1970. For the FBI to prosecute, however, the slayings must involve explosives, occur on federal lands, or have an interstate aspect, such as a victim or weapon being transported across a state line. Otherwise, the finders are turned over to the state for potential prosecution.

Janke said cases in which a civil right is impeded, such as keeping a person from voting, have a relatively short statute of limitation.

The bureau hopes simply asking around may lead to a break in the case, says Janke. "Our hope is as people grow older they will want to clear their consciences."

Residents of Louisiana and Mississippi who have knowledge of a racially motivated murder are urged to contact either the New Orleans or Jackson, Miss., FBI field office.

Though there is no administrative time limit on the civil rights initiative, Janke said it has a natural time limit and the bureau has more current priorities that require resources. "Hate hasn't stopped."