The Department of Justice’s Efforts to Investigate and Prosecute Unsolved Civil Rights Era Homicides
Overview and Background
For more than 50 years, the Department has been instrumental in bringing justice to some of the nation’s most horrific civil rights era crimes, including through the Department’s groundbreaking 1967 federal prosecution of 19 subjects for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a case commonly referred to as the “Mississippi Burning” case in which seven defendants were convicted. Unfortunately, federal jurisdiction over these historic cases is quite limited. The Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution and federal statutory law limit the Department’s ability to prosecute most civil rights era cases at the federal level because key federal hate crimes laws were enacted after the matters in this initiative occurred. Similarly, the five-year statute of limitations on even death-resulting federal criminal civil rights charges that existed prior to 1994 presents another limitation on such prosecutions. The Fifth Amendment’s protection against double jeopardy prohibits the re-trial, in the same court, for the same offenses, of persons who were previously found not guilty or who were convicted but received shockingly light sentences. There is no exception to this constitutional protection regardless of how biased the jury, how inadequate the prosecution or how misinformed the court might have been.
In addition, there are certain difficulties inherent in all cold cases: subjects die; witnesses die or can no longer be located; memories become clouded; evidence is destroyed or cannot be located; original investigations lacked the technical and scientific advances relied upon today. Even with our best efforts, investigations into historic cases are exceptionally difficult, and rarely will justice be reached inside of a courtroom.
The Department has always been willing to reassess and review cold cases when new evidence came to light. Thus far, the Department’s efforts have resulted in two successful federal prosecutions, and three successful state prosecutions, both before and since the Till Act. The federal prosecutions are United States v. Ernest Henry Avants, 367 F.3d 433 (5th Cir. 2004) (Avants was convicted in February 2003, sentenced to life in prison, and died in prison in 2004), and United States v. James Ford Seale, 600 F.3d 973 (5th Cir. 2010) (Seale was convicted in June 2007, and sentenced to three life terms; he died in prison in 2011). The first successful federally-assisted state prosecution was the Sixteenth Street Church bombing case in which the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, was cross-designated to serve as the lead prosecutor in two state trials, resulting in Defendant Tommy Blanton being convicted in April 2001, and sentenced to four life terms, and defendant Bobby Cherry being convicted in May 2002, and sentenced to four life terms (he died in prison in 2004). The second successful federally-assisted state prosecution was the State of Mississippi v. Edgar Ray Killen in which the defendant was convicted of three counts of manslaughter in June 2005, and sentenced to 60 years in prison. The most recent successful federally-assisted state prosecution occurred in 2010, in the State of Alabama v. James Bernard Fowler. Fowler was convicted in November 2010 and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
In October 2008, the Till Act was signed into law, directing the Department to designate a Deputy Chief in the Civil Rights Division to coordinate the investigation and prosecution of civil rights era homicides, and a Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit to coordinate the investigation of these cases. The Civil Rights Division and the FBI were also given the authority to work with State and local law enforcement officials.
In order to further the Department’s commitment to investigating and prosecuting civil rights era homicides, the FBI in 2006 began its Cold Case Initiative (the Initiative) to identify and investigate the murders committed during the civil rights era. Department lawyers and agents have jointly participated in a multi-faceted strategy to address these investigations.
As detailed more fully in prior reports, the first step in the Initiative was to identify cases for inclusion by having each of the 56 FBI field offices identify cases within its jurisdiction that might warrant review. In 2007, we began the next phase of the Initiative, in which we conducted an extensive outreach campaign to solicit assistance from the NAACP, SPLC, and the National Urban League; various community groups; and the academic community; and state and local law enforcement organizations. We also conducted an aggressive media campaign, granting interviews to numerous outlets, including New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting Company, 60 Minutes, Dateline, and local media outlets, in an effort to elicit the public’s assistance with locating witnesses to these crimes, as well as family members of the victims. When our work on the Initiative began, we had identified 95 matters for inclusion. Largely as a result of our outreach efforts, that number has grown to 113. At a minimum, we believe that our demonstrated commitment already has provided the communities with the assurance that they are being heard and that the Department is doing everything possible to investigate these important cases.
Click here to view the list of cold case closing memoranda
The Cold Case Initiative resulted in one successful federal prosecution which was upheld on appeal in 2010. This case involved the 1964 murders of 19-year-olds Charles Moore and Henry Dee in Franklin County, Mississippi. More detailed facts of this case were included in prior reports. Seale was convicted in June 2007 of two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy, and was sentenced to three life terms. On March 12, 2010, Seale’s conviction was affirmed by the original Fifth Circuit panel. On October 4, 2010, Seale’s petition for certiorari review to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied. Seale died in prison on August 2, 2011.
There has also been a successful state prosecution since passage of the Till Act. This case involved the February 18, 1965 shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson by then-Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler following a civil rights protest in Marion, Alabama. In May 2007, the District Attorney for Perry County, Alabama filed murder charges against Fowler. The FBI lent its assistance to local investigators and the District Attorney’s Office in connection with the case. On November 15, 2010, the seventy-seven year old Fowler pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and received a six-month prison sentence.
Notifying Victim Family Members
During the past five years, the FBI has completed its work on most of the investigations and has submitted them to the Department for review. The Department’s review of these investigations and the thousands of documents provided by the FBI is ongoing. Unfortunately, during this process, it has become apparent that due to the many impediments discussed earlier in this Report, it is unlikely that any of these remaining cases will be prosecuted.
In an effort to nonetheless bring some sense of closure to the family members of these victims, the Department is writing letters to the next of kin when found. We have also made the decision to have FBI agents hand deliver these letters to known family members.
The FBI has devoted considerable resources to locating the next of kin for the victims, successfully locating family members for 102 of the 126 victims. The FBI continues its efforts to locate victim family members.