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Cold Case Justice Initiative uncovers 196 new cases from civil rights era

Cold Case Justice Initiative

Although it was half a century ago, many families still live with pain and questions about loved ones who were killed during the civil rights movement. Many cases remain unsolved, and through Syracuse University’s Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI), law students investigate long buried information that might help persuade the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, or local law enforcement officials to prosecute these long neglected murders.

CCJI is currently investigating 196 new cases of suspicious civil rights era killings. Nearly 100 of these cases occurred in Georgia, and a significant number involved law enforcement. SU College of Law professors Paula C. Johnson and Janis L. McDonald guided a team of two dozen SU law student volunteers who conducted the massive research effort in Georgia, Louisiana, and Syracuse over the past year and a half. The research revealed racially suspicious deaths in several states, including Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and North Carolina, as well as the District of Columbia. 

CCJI co-directors McDonald and Johnson recently delivered the list to Justice Department officials for their review. These cases must be thoroughly investigated. Where appropriate, the new cases will be added to the FBI’s existing list of civil rights era racially motivated killings. The FBI’s original list of 122 cases was never intended to be a complete accounting of suspected atrocities. 

“We can’t wait for the Justice Department to do its job,” says Johnson. “Over the last four years, anytime Janis or I would be in a community we’d be contacted by relatives who believed they lost loved ones due to racial violence. We take their claims seriously and conduct our own investigations, and we’ll continue to do so.”

The CCJI conducts investigations and research on unresolved cases, offers academic courses, public forums and other special events, and serves as a clearinghouse for sharing and receiving information on active cases.  The project insists on vigilant attention to these long unresolved, racially motivated killings and continuing issues of racial justice.

Johnson and McDonald founded the project in 2007, in response to the 1964 Ferriday, Louisiana, murder of shoe shop owner Frank Morris, which remains unsolved. Suspected Ku Klux Klan members forced Morris into his shoe shop at gunpoint and set the store on fire. Severely burned, Morris died four days later.

Under McDonald’s and Johnson’s supervision, more than 50 SU law students researched thousands of documents and worked with local investigative reporters, which led to witnesses providing new information, the appointment of a special FBI agent, and a pledge by the U.S. attorney for a full review of the case. The students’ efforts ignited law enforcement investigation of additional deaths long suspected by the community to be racially motivated and committed by the Klan.

In 2008 Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Act, requiring the Justice Department and FBI to devote intensive investigations during a 10-year period to address the unsolved civil rights era homicides. The law was named for a 14-year-old boy who was tortured and brutally murdered in 1955 for allegedly “whistling” at a white woman in Sumner, Mississippi.  However, no indictments have been obtained since the Act became law. The CCJI project seeks to change that, and it begins with building a more complete list of suspicious cases.

“Ever since Congress enacted the Emmett Till Act we’ve been asking the FBI and the Justice Department to undertake a thorough search of all of the suspicious deaths that occurred during this time frame,” says McDonald. “There’s never been a full accounting of all of the people who were killed as the result of Klan violence and other racial hatred during the era.”

While the CCJI research effort revealed startling figures, Johnson, McDonald, and the SU law students hope their findings mark the first step in bringing justice that’s decades overdue.

McDonald and Johnson work to help other law schools adopt the CCJI model to assist other families who seek justice. Johnson earned her B.A. from the University of Maryland, College Park, her J.D. from Temple University School of Law, and her LL.M. from Georgetown University Law Center. McDonald earned her B.A. from George Washington University, her J.D. from Hofstra University School of Law, and her LL.M. from Yale Law School.

Learn more about the CCJI.