By Kevin Thibodeaux | LSU Student
WASHINGTON, D.C. - FBI agents remain adamant they are making their best efforts to bring justice to decades-old Civil Rights era murders, although they acknowledged cases get tougher by the year as suspects and witnesses die of age-related ailments.
The Emmett Till Act of 2007 provided the FBI the jurisdiction to review unsolved or inadequately resolved homicides that occurred prior to 1970 and appear to be racially motivated. Some 112 cases (a few involving multiple deaths) – usually Klan related and primarily involving African American victims – came under investigation.
In its annual report to Congress concerning the resolution of these cases in October 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ), which oversees the FBI, noted only 20 cases remained active, more than half of which relate to incidents in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Six of those cases, according to the Justice Department, are in Louisiana in the 1960s, including Carrie Brumfield in Franklinton, Washington Parish Deputy Sheriff O'Neal Moore in Vernado, Frank Morris in Ferriday; Joseph Edwards in Vidalia and William Piercefield in Concordia Parish. It is known that several more cases have been recommended for closure since then, but the Justice Department will not say which ones.
Twelve more of the still-active cases occurred in southern Mississippi, including Louis Allen in Amite County; Benjamin Brown in Jackson, Wharlest Jackson in Natchez, Mack Charles Parker in Pearl River County, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Luther Jackson in Philadelphia, Johnny Queen in Fayette, William Roy Prather in Cornith, Adlena Hamlett in Sidon, and Clifton Walker in Woodville.
How many of the 20 cases (involving about two dozen murders) will remain open when the Justice Department presents its next annual report to Congress this fall is uncertain. If past annual accountings are an indication, as many as half of the remaining cases would become inactive. Thus, the potential of closing the remaining cases within five years appears likely.
Civil Rights Unit Chief Drew Watts said the FBI is always looking for people to come forward with new information. "We want evidence to come in. We'd like people to come forward with information."
While the current list of actives cases is dwindling, the Syracuse University law school's Cold Case Justice Initiative presented the FBI last fall with a new list of nearly 200 victims of racially motivated crimes.
The FBI says the Justice Department is in the process of vetting those potential cases, noting that many of them fall outside of the Emmitt Till Act's time frame, which dictates the FBI may only investigate crimes prior to 1970. Other sources have told the LSU team that the names on the list do not always involve deaths or appear to be racially motivated.
The initiative has had limited success in terms of convictions. So far only two federal and three state convictions have resulted from these efforts, and many of those occurred prior to enactment of the Emmett Till Act.
The FBI routinely does not comment on ongoing litigation or investigations and it is unknown how many more convictions, if any, it expects from its efforts. One case still before a parish grand jury in Louisiana is that of Frank Morris, a black business owner in Ferriday, who died four days after Klan members fire-bombed his shoe shop with him inside it in December 1964.
The LSU Cold Case team has learned from Louisiana sources that Morris' case has seen three parish grand juries come and go without an indictment. Two suspects who lived in the region, Arthur Leonard Spencer and the now deceased Coonie Poissot, were implicated in an investigative series by the Concordia Sentinel in 2010.
The biggest challenge to these cases is finding witnesses who are still alive today, Watts and Supervisory Special Agent George Steuer told LSU's Cold Case initiative student project in early April in Washington, D.C.
As for criticism that cold case investigators have neglected to interview FBI agents who worked the original cases as well as publically identified witnesses, the FBI counters, without commenting on specific cases, that witnesses are not always truthful about their cooperation with the FBI and that the memories of individuals who were interviewed 50 years ago – sometimes more than once – have faded. Initial interviews may help guide decisions on whom to re-interview as part of a current investigation, says the Bureau.
Another criticism occasionally heard is that an agent is not assigned a cold case long enough to see it through, and therefore investigative continuity is lost. The FBI acknowledges agents are promoted or reassigned during investigations, but says such changes have impacts no different for cold cases than for typical investigations.
However, Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel who has written nearly 200 stories on Klan incidents in the Ferriday, La.,-Natchez, Miss., area, counters that "there is no way you can give your best effort to an investigation into an enormously complicated half-century old case without assigning permanent agents to the case."
Further, argues Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011 for his work on these homicides, agents working the cases today "need the perspective, knowledge and wisdom of the retired agents who were on the ground in the South when they were truly in a life-or-death battle with the Klan."
Although many of these cases will likely never see a conviction, the FBI repeatedly has said that its primary goal to bring light to what happened and, if they can be found, to inform surviving relatives of what the investigation found.
Once it is believed that the FBI investigation can go no further and a legal resolution is not an option, the Justice Department sends a next-of-kin letter, usually hand delivered by an FBI agent, to known survivors, explaining the information discovered and stating the reason for closing the case.
"Our goal is to push these next-of-kin letters and give these families closure," Watts said.
Residents of Louisiana and Mississippi having information about a racially motivated homicide in the Civil Rights era are urged by the FBI to call one of the following numbers: