House passes bill to reopen civil rights-era cold cases

Published 4:16 pm Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Justice Department would get more than $100 million for new prosecutors, FBI agents and other resources to revisit unsolved murders from the civil rights era under a bill passed by the House Wednesday.

The bill, which is also moving swiftly through the Senate, would authorize $10 million a year over the next decade to build on the Justice Department’s recent successes in reopening racially motivated crimes that had sat cold for decades. It also would earmark $2 million per year in grants for state and local law enforcement agencies to investigate cases in which federal prosecution isn’t practical, and an additional $1.5 million to improve coordination among investigating agencies.

The bill, passed 422-2, is named in honor of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who was beaten and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman. His killers were never convicted.

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“We must do something to right these wrongs,” said Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights veteran who sponsored the bill. “We have an obligation … let us move to close this dark stain on our nation’s history.”

Lewis and Senate sponsor Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., want Congress to approve the measure quickly as memories of crimes fade and suspects and witnesses grow old.

The Senate could clear the bill this week, and the Bush administration has signaled its support.

State and federal prosecutors have had a string of successes recently in reopening civil rights crimes from the 1950s and 1960s, including the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing and the 1964 slayings of three civil rights volunteers in Mississippi.

Most recently, prosecutors last week won the conviction of reputed Klansman James Ford Seale on federal charges of kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 deaths of Charles Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. The 19-year-olds disappeared from Franklin County, Miss., in 1964, and their bodies were found later in the Mississippi River.

The bill calls for the attorney general to appoint a deputy chief in the Justice Department and supervisory special agent at the FBI to coordinate the investigations, while leaving the agencies discretion in organizing the effort.

At a recent hearing, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Grace Chung Becker said the department plans to review at least 100 more cases, many based on files turned over by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which has long pressed for more prosecutions.

Becker and others have cautioned that the cases are very difficult to prosecute because witnesses have died or forgotten details, evidence has been lost and laws have changed.

Two Republicans, Ron Paul of Texas and Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, voted against the bill.

Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Westmoreland, said the congressman supports pursuing civil rights cases where leads and evidence exist but that the Justice Department should be able to handle those cases within its existing budget.

“It’s creating a new bureaucracy where existing law enforcement divisions can handle the caseload,” Robinson said. “This was named for Emmett Till and that’s illustrative of the point. The guy who killed him has been dead for many, many years. We can’t prosecute dead people.”

The bill is HR 923.