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Archive for Sunday, September 7, 2008

FBI’s civil rights initiative: No trials yet

September 7, 2008

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— Flanked by officials from the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center, FBI Director Robert Mueller last year announced with considerable fanfare a new partnership between his agency and civil rights organizations.

The goal: To bring justice in long-ignored murders from the civil rights era.

The outcome: Not one case has been prosecuted under the FBI's Cold Case Initiative, which began two years ago with no fanfare at all.

The civil rights leaders present at Mueller's February 2007 news conference - John Jackson of the NAACP, who now works for a private firm, and Richard Cohen, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center - have come to question the government's motives.

Some of the killings occurred up to 60 years ago. Evidence was sometimes destroyed to prevent further investigating. Some crime-scene samples - clothing, hair strands, blood stains - were lost.

Of witnesses still alive, some are afraid to come forward. Others are ashamed, unwilling to bear witness against relatives who did the Ku Klux Klan's bidding.

Yet some killers have been convicted - before the FBI's new initiative was announced. Those successes were due in large part to the relentless efforts of survivors, journalists and prosecutors, and to the declassification of secret documents from the segregationist Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an agency that spied on blacks and civil rights workers and was connected to racial killings. Commission records were finally released in 1998 after a 21-year legal battle.

Since 1989, state and federal authorities have made about 29 arrests, leading to 23 convictions, according to civil rights organizations and others.

Mueller promised the cases would be sent to FBI field offices for review. Months later, he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that 26 cases had been forwarded to the Justice Department for prosecutorial analyses.

They've been there for more than a year.

A bill in Congress that would have allocated $10 million annually to pursue cold civil rights cases - the so-called Till Bill, named for Emmett Till, a murdered black teenager - passed the House overwhelmingly but failed in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the cold case initiative remains under FBI's civil rights division, with no independent budget.

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