The following post appears courtesy of the Civil Rights Division.
In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy, was sent by his mother to live with family in Mississippi. What would later unfold was a major event that sparked our nation’s Civil Rights Movement. After interacting with a white woman, Till was abducted and brutally murdered by two men who confessed to the crime after they were acquitted of murder charges. Double jeopardy prohibited the state from retrying the defendants, so both of the now-deceased perpetrators managed to elude justice.
In recognition of the significance of these events, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 to task the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI with reviewing, investigating and assessing for prosecutive merit more than 100 unsolved civil rights era homicides.
Reflecting on the importance of these cold case investigations, Attorney General Eric Holder said:
The Department of Justice fully supports the goals of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007. Unsolved, racially-motivated murders from the civil rights era are a stain on our nation’s history, but they are also an opportunity for us to demonstrate our commitment to the principle of equal justice for all. I am personally committed to this issue, and I assure you that the Department of Justice will lend its assistance, expertise, and resources to the investigation and, when possible, the prosecution of these tragic murders.
The Civil Rights Division, the United States Attorneys’ offices, and the FBI, have worked diligently to assess whether more than 100 pending cold case matters can be prosecuted, and they are continuing their efforts. Often, there are significant obstacles to prosecuting crimes committed decades ago. Witnesses may have died, or they may be impossible to locate. Memories may have faded; evidence may have been lost or destroyed.
But while the passage of time may have created obstacles to prosecution in some cases, experience has shown that time may have removed obstacles in others. Perhaps a citizen who was once too afraid to provide information will now step forward and tell what he or she knows. Perhaps someone who has suffered a guilty conscience for many years will find the courage to relieve himself of that burden. Perhaps someone will simply decide that it is long past time to help right a terrible wrong. We know from other cold case investigations that brave citizens telling their truth for the first time can make a prosecution possible.
I strongly urge anyone with information concerning a civil rights era murder to contact the FBI. The time to come forward is now. If we work together, perhaps we can uncover the truth while there is still a chance to bring the criminals who perpetrated these vile murders to justice.
The Justice Department has conducted extensive outreach to investigate and resolve these unsolved cold cases. Our cold case initiative has yielded major accomplishments.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals Court upheld the 2007 conviction of James Ford Seale, a reputed Klu Klux Klansman, in the kidnapping and killing of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee in 1964. The Court upheld Seale’s conviction by a jury in a trial prosecuted by Justice Department officials 43 years after the murders. Read the Court’s opinion, here.
Because of legal limitations, it is unlikely that there will be federal jurisdiction over most of these cases. Two critical statutes used to prosecute racially motivated homicides, interference with federally protected activities and interference with housing rights, were not enacted until 1968. Under the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution, these laws cannot be applied retroactively to conduct that preceded their enactment. The five-year statute of limitations on most federal criminal charges is another challenge for prosecutors.
Department officials have also engaged the community, including civil rights groups like the NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Cold Case Truth and Justice Project to enlist help in identifying potential cases and uncovering information. The Department is committed to bringing these cases when possible.
Our review of these cases will be exhaustive and thorough. If we are able to bring a sense of closure to these cases, to bring justice in any form to the families of the victims of these horrific crimes in memory of Emmett Till, it will be worth the effort.