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Civil Rights-Era Cold Cases

Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till Mobley

Civil rights-era cold cases are civil rights offenses that occurred before 1980 where the victims were typically killed because of their race or color, or because they were advocating to advance the cause of civil rights.

In 2007, the Department of Justice tried and convicted James Ford Seale, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, for the 1964 kidnapping and murder of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, two young, African-American men from Mississippi. Seale and others abducted Dee and Moore, brutally beat them, weighed them down, and threw them into a river. Seale evaded justice for more than 40 years until the FBI began its Cold Case Initiative – a comprehensive effort to identify and investigate racially motivated murders from decades ago. Seale received a life sentence; he died in prison in 2011.

A bar graph showing the percentage of cases open and known victims.

A year after Seale’s conviction, Congress enacted the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which directed the Department of Justice to identify, review, and where possible, prosecute “civil rights cold cases” from the civil rights-era. The law, known as the Till Act, was named for Emmett Till, whose racially motivated murder in 1955 highlighted injustice in the legal system and was a pivotal part of the burgeoning civil rights movement. The law covers only civil rights offenses that occurred before 1980 – typically those crimes where the victims were killed because of their race or color, or because they were advocating to advance the cause of civil rights. The Department’s most recent report to Congress summarizing its review of cold cases under the Till Act was issued in June 2019.

Since the passage of the Till Act in 2008, the Department has opened 132 matters, involving 151 known victims, for review.

Of the 132 matters identified to date, the Department has fully investigated and resolved 116.

Reviewing and Investigating Cold Cases

The Department’s Civil Rights Division works closely with the FBI to identify and investigate racially motivated murders committed long ago. The public has an important role to play in the efforts to right the wrongs of the past.  Historians, advocacy groups, filmmakers, and victims’ family members have referred matters for the Civil Rights Division to review. Anyone with information related to a civil rights-era cold case—even those cases considered closed—should contact the Civil Rights Division (see end of article) and share that information.

Civil Rights Division attorneys with experience in investigating cold cases identify potential suspects and witnesses, obtain records from any previous investigation and prosecution, review news coverage from the time of the incident, and determine whether the Department can bring charges in federal court. Sometimes, FBI agents will interview suspects and witnesses, collect evidence, and conduct forensic or other scientific examinations.

Where possible, the Department will bring a case in federal court or refer the matter to state investigators. If the case cannot be prosecuted under federal or state law, the Civil Rights Division writes a memorandum explaining the facts of the case, the investigative steps taken at the time of the incident and under the Cold Case Initiative and Till Act, and the reasons for closing the investigation. These memoranda are available on the Division’s website and, if possible, delivered to the victims’ next of kin.

Barriers to Successful Prosecution


Prosecutors cannot use modern-day hate crime laws to prosecute someone for conduct that occurred before those laws were enacted. The absence of federal hate crime laws is often fatal to bringing federal charges.

Unfortunately, the Department has closed almost all of these matters because of legal and evidentiary barriers that are common to most cold cases. In a large number of cases, all identifiable subjects have died. In other cases, the death of key witnesses or the destruction of important evidence prevents prosecutors from proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a civil rights-era homicide.

Another hurdle is that prosecutors can only bring charges using laws that were in force at the time of a crime. The first hate crimes laws were not passed until 1968. Prosecutors cannot use modern-day laws, like the comprehensive hate crime law enacted in 2009, to prosecute someone for conduct that occurred before these laws were enacted.

Moreover, the statute of limitations—a legal deadline for the government to charge someone for criminal conduct—has often passed in these cases.

How to Get Involved

Despite these barriers, the Department is committed to devoting its resources to ensure that these terrible crimes are identified and investigated. Our duty is to prosecute any cold case in which living subjects exist and where the law and facts warrant prosecution.

The Department can provide presentations on the Till Act to community groups, universities, local law enforcement agencies, and anyone else interested in learning more about the Department’s cold case efforts. Those interested in requesting a presentation can do so here. Due to resource constraints, we are unable to provide presentations for groups with fewer than 20 people.

If you or someone you know has information about a civil rights-era cold case, please contact your local FBI office, or contact the Civil Rights Division at (202) 514-4609, (TTY) (202) 514-0716, or

Updated November 14, 2022