Civil rights-era killings yield secrets to FBI probe

By Carrie Johnson
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Three years after the FBI pledged to investigate more than 100 unsolved civil rights killings, the agency is ready to close all but a handful. Investigators say they have solved most of the mysteries behind the cases, but few will result in indictments, given the passage of decades, the deaths of prime suspects and the challenge of gathering evidence.

"There's maybe five to seven cases where we don't know who did it," said FBI Special Agent Cynthia Deitle, who is heading the bureau's effort. "Some we know; others we know but can't prove. For every other case, we got it."

Even without taking cases to court, the project has filled in broad gaps in the stories of the murdered, many of whom were forgotten victims from a brutal chapter of American history.

Officials now believe, for example, that an Alabama state trooper killed an unarmed civil rights protester in 1965, a case that helped inspire the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to march in the state. In the deaths of two North Carolina men in police custody -- one found in 1956 with a crushed skull and the other who refused medical treatment in 1960 after a heart attack -- the agency concluded that there was no federal law it could use to pursue the cases.

Investigators have walked through rural cemeteries looking for clues, searched yellowed documents in government archives and interviewed witnesses, some so shattered by their experiences that they still refused to talk. Along the way, officials discovered a more complex story than they had imagined.

In nearly one-fifth of the 108 cases, they learned that the deaths had no connection to the racial unrest pulsing through the South at the height of the civil rights struggle.

In at least one case, the victim had been killed by a relative, but the family blamed the Ku Klux Klan. In other cases, a victim drowned or was fatally knifed in a bar fight. Two black women registering voters in the hot Mississippi summer died in a car accident. One man died under his mistress -- a bedroom secret kept for more than four decades until the bureau came calling.

The FBI's project, which at its peak involved more than 40 agents working in cities across the South and along the Eastern Seaboard, was the agency's most focused campaign to find out what happened in the deaths. For some families, hopes of a legal reckoning have been dashed, but the investigation has produced a different kind of accounting.

"These racially motivated murders are some of the greatest blemishes on our nation's history," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights. "We owe it to people who were all a part of this struggle to be persistent. . . . If we can solve a number of these cases, that's fantastic. But if we can bring to closure all of these cases, I think this will be well worth the effort."

At the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., where the names of victims are etched on the walls of the organization's civil rights memorial, President Richard Cohen added, "Justice in a few of those cases is going to have to serve as a symbolic victory in all of them."

Long-lost evidence

From a conference room on the third floor of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building in the District, the civil rights struggle continues. But four decades or longer after the deaths, nearly every aspect of the trail has gone cold.

Special Agent James Hosty, a former police officer from Kansas who joined the FBI after helping capture the notorious "BTK" serial killer, has spent three years hunting down leads in a case near Atlanta.

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