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Civil rights-era killings yield secrets to FBI probe

By Carrie Johnson
Sunday, February 28, 2010; A01

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.

In 1946, four black sharecroppers were killed on Moore's Ford Bridge in Walton County, Georgia, prompting President Harry S. Truman to order the FBI to work round-the-clock to bring the shooters to justice. As many as two dozen people, some of them prominent members of the community, might have been involved in the deaths, investigators say.

But no charges were filed -- and volumes of case files sat untouched in FBI archives in Silver Spring for decades until the investigation was reopened by Howard Hatfield, who is an assistant special agent in charge at the Atlanta office, and an agent was assigned full time to the case.

"It basically took six to eight months to get through those records and determine who was alive or dead," Hosty said.

Some of those Hosty thinks witnessed or were involved in the killings had neither a Social Security number nor any other identifier that would allow him to determine whether they are alive and could be questioned or prosecuted.

The case remains unsolved, but new evidence allowed investigators to secure a search warrant in 2008, 62 years after the deadly encounter. FBI agents in Atlanta said they continue to work leads, hoping for a breakthrough from witnesses who at the time feared talking to authorities but since might have changed their minds.

In many of the unsolved cases, family members or victims' rights advocates have complained about how long it has taken for the federal government to investigate and about what they say is the lack of results. But more reasonable expectations are called for by Alvin Sykes, who was part of a successful effort to have the government reopen the investigation into the 1955 killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Mississippi case that helped launch the civil rights movement.

"From the beginning, our focus was not just to prosecute cases but to find the truth," Sykes said. "We're not disappointed, but we do expect to find a significant number of more cases through the outreach effort, a criminal manhunt to find these people, and go from there."

Few legal tools

"Welcome to my headache," said Deitle, who was handpicked by the current FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, to lead the re-energized civil rights effort.

The government has scant legal tools at its disposal in prosecuting the decades-old deaths because it can use just three federal statutes on the books before 1968, when Congress passed an expansive statute governing civil rights prosecutions.

The pre-1968 statutes apply in homicides only if a victim was killed on federal land; a victim was kidnapped and killed; or if an explosive device was transported across state lines with the intent to injure, according to Paige Fitzgerald, a Justice Department lawyer who played a central role in two of the cold cases that went to trial in recent years.

The FBI looks for room to maneuver within the old statutes. In a Florida killing, for example, an agent was dispatched to secure Global Positioning System coordinates to determine whether the killing occurred on land once belonging to a Native American tribe.

One case has drawn the agency's focused attention because it might be connected to other interstate Ku Klux Klan attacks.

On Dec. 10, 1964, Frank Morris, a shoe store owner in Ferriday, La., woke to the sound of tinkling glass. He emerged from a cot at the back of the burning building with third-degree burns covering his body. Morris survived four days in a hospital, but he wasn't able to name the attackers before he died.

At the time, FBI investigators found a charred finger near the crime scene that did not belong to Morris. Over the years, the finger was lost. But an agent had recorded a fingerprint, which remains in the FBI's files.

"So," Deitle asked one morning last month, "who's missing a finger in Ferriday?"

An undercover agent has been canvassing the town for a fingerless man, and the FBI lab is searching for fingerprint matches. But in the meantime, the case remains unsolved.

In an FBI office in Jackson, Miss., Jenny Williams, a supervisory special agent, has instructed 11 agents working on nearly four dozen cold cases to take nothing for granted -- even reports of the demise of the prime suspects, especially when death certificates are not available.

"We definitely don't take someone's word for it," Williams said. "We'll send people out to a cemetery. We have evidence that's a picture of a tombstone in a cemetery, old small-town family cemeteries."

Special Agent Jeromy Turner walked a 300-headstone cemetery in Yazoo City, Miss., four times looking for a dead man. Relatives insisted that the man was buried in a plot there, but "I never could find him," Turner said. "Finally, I was able to locate a funeral home owner who had the death certificate that showed he was buried in that cemetery, but the family had disowned him." There was no headstone marking his grave.

Among the most promising cases are those in which accomplices have not been prosecuted. That is a central focus in the killing of Louis Allen, a logger and member of the NAACP in Amite County, Miss., who was ambushed in January 1964 after years of threats.

Allen's son Henry and other family members have plastered the community with posters thanking God "for anyone willing to come forward to solve this heinous crime. Anonymity promised." They are offering a $20,000 reward for information.

Deitle, who helped investigate the New York Police Department shooting of immigrant Amadou Diallo 11 years ago, said the FBI effort is one of the last opportunities to investigate the dark alleys of the segregated past.

"If we don't correct history, then who's going to go back through this? Who's going to fix history to make it accurate?" she asked.

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