Patrick Semansky, Associated Press
Every time we think we've seen the last of the trials for civil rights-era atrocities, it seems, prosecutors will parade some stooped, white-haired defendant before the cameras in shackles.
Byron de la Beckwith. Sam Bowers. Bobby Frank Cherry. Edgar Ray Killen. James Ford Seale.
There is no statute of limitations on murder, and age and infirmity offer no refuge for the guilty, these cases have proved. But if justice has an enemy, it is time. And now, officials are conceding that the spectacle of juries passing judgment on such aging killers is just about past.
The Department of Justice, under its 5-year-old "Cold Case Initiative" and the 2007 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, has combed through that dark period of American history, seeking any cases that could still be prosecuted. Isolating 111 incidents involving 124 deaths, investigators have sought to determine whether those who died were victims of racially motivated crimes — and then whether there's anyone left to charge.
In about two-thirds of those cases, FBI agents have hand-delivered letters to next of kin, informing them that the government had taken things as far as they could.
In some cases, all of the suspects are dead; in others, suspect individuals have been acquitted in the past and cannot legally be retried. In a few, the agency can find no evidence that a crime was racially motivated — or even that the death resulted from foul play.
"We regret to inform you that we are unable to proceed further with a federal criminal investigation of this matter ..., " a DOJ official wrote to the daughter of Harry and Harriette Moore, who died following the dynamiting of their Florida home six decades ago. "Please accept our sincere condolences on the loss of your parents."
Roughly three dozen of the reviewed investigations — including the oldest, the Florida lynching of Claude Neal in 1934 — remain open.
Although DOJ reported to Congress recently that some state prosecutions are "potentially viable," the passage of time and other "impediments" make the prospect of trials unlikely.
"Few, if any, of these cases will be prosecuted," the agency acknowledged.
Civil rights activist Alvin Sykes, who did as much as anyone to push for this effort, is disappointed.
"I said, 'The American people won't believe you made a full-faith effort if there wasn't a manhunt,'" says the head of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, named for the 14-year-old black boy whose lynching in Mississippi helped spark the modern civil rights movement. "They made some efforts, but they didn't make an outreach, a manhunt."
But Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center says it was clear from the outset that "most of the cases that were solvable have been solved." Even without new prosecutions, he says, a page has been turned.
"I think there is some utility in closing cases, if for no better reason than to assure the families that what can be done at this late date has been done," says Potok, director of the Montgomery, Ala.-based organization's Intelligence Project. "These are people who have been completely left out of the justice process for many decades. So the government does owe them a debt of attention. So I wouldn't say that it was a total waste of taxpayer money."
During the darkest days of the civil rights struggle, when all-white juries acquitted obvious perpetrators or Southern state officials flat refused to prosecute racial killings, families could still turn to the federal government for some modicum of justice. A few years in prison for a federal civil rights violation was better than no punishment at all.
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