By Jake Clapp | LSU Student
WASHINGTON, D.C. - When a murder case drags on for 40 years, evidence grows thin, witnesses disappear from the scene and prosecution becomes increasingly problematic.
Bringing closure to the families of cold-case murder victims by turning over what the bureau has discovered through its investigation – even when it has hit a dead end -- often is the best measure of success for the FBI's Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative, say those charged with investigating Ku Klux Klan-related murders of the 1960s in Louisiana and southern Misissippi.
Prompted by the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, the Department of Justice reopened 111 cases involving 124 victims of civil rights-related crimes, most involving Ku Klux Klansmen and fellow travelers.
While Congress authorized the Department of Justice to investigate these cases, state or local authorities usually handle any prosecution that may result. In the interim, the Justice has closed 79 cases, a dozen of which occurred in Louisiana or southern Mississippi.
In 67 of the closed cases, the identified suspects were dead or there was insufficient evidence to move forward. Two cases resulted in successful prosecutions, while another three resulted in successful state prosecutions.
Another 12 Klan murder cases remain open in Louisiana and Mississippi, six in each state. All but one involves black victims. The FBI continues to seek information on Klan-related murders of that era and asks that persons with information about an incident contact its offices in New Orleans or Jackson, Miss.
"Success can't be judged just by prosecutions," Heith Janke, supervisory special agent for the Civil Rights Initiative Unit, said recently in an interview with student team members of the LSU Manship School's Unsolved Civil Rights-era Murders Project.
"When there isn't enough evidence, sitting down with the family and saying, ‘This is what we think happened,' is all we can do."
Janke said when an investigation terminates the FBI will hand deliver a letter to the family members or relatives of the victim -- if they can be located – detailing investigative efforts and findings.
The FBI has identified the survivors in 95 of the 124 original cold cases.
For the remaining open cases, time is the enemy. Witnesses and suspects die, memories cloud, evidence erodes in the nearly half century since the crimes were committed. Agents scoured Louisiana and Mississippi in the aftermath of many of these murders, but Klan-intimidated witnesses or Klan sympathetic juries refused to produce justice.
Following the February 1967 murder of Wharlest Jackson in the streets of Natchez, Miss., the victim of a car bomb placed by the Ku Klux Klan and prompted by Jackson's elevation to a supervisory role at the now-shuttered Armstrong Tire Co., the FBI spent more than a quarter of a million dollars investigating the bombing
By October 1967, up to 180 agents were assigned to the case, according to an expense report found in the FBI's Jackson bombing case file obtained under the Federal Open Records Act by the LSU student team. On the same expense report, a total of 6,719 unpaid overtime hours were reported.
These expenses were typical for such civil rights investigations, but despite the FBI's efforts the cases still went cold. Nevertheless, the FBI says it remains dedicated to bringing closure in some manner to families, Janke said, noting that the number of agents dedicated to one of those cold case murder investigations is within the purview of regional offices. Current hate crimes incidents can result in the reassignment of agents to more immediate needs.
For members of Ferriday's black community, where several violent KKK-directed murders shook the area in the 1960s, the FBI's sense of finality might never be attained, said Robert Lee III, a community activist.
"There will never be closure per se," Lee said. "In this instance, there is satisfaction in knowing that the justice system looked into it and tried to do something, but closure isn't the appropriate word to use here."
Lee said the underlying theme of hate that drove these crimes and current hate crimes is why closure hasn't occurred.
"A prosecution wouldn't bring closure. We're not looking for revenge. But we can't say it's over. A man is missing because of his skin color, and these crimes still happen. Look at what happened with Trayvon Martin. We're still seeing these same crimes and same mindset of hate."