The FBI has reopened investigations of about a dozen decades-old suspicious deaths, officials said Tuesday amid a Justice Department focus on cracking unsolved cases from the nation’s civil rights era.
The high-priority cases, which FBI Director Robert S. Mueller described as numbering between 10 and 12, are among an estimated 100 that investigators nationwide are looking at as possible civil rights-related murders.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged that many of the cases may be far beyond the boundaries of what the federal government can legally prosecute. But they “remain on our radar,” he said.
“Much time has passed on these crimes,” Gonzales told reporters in Washington. “The wounds they left are deep, and still many of them have not healed. But we are committed to re-examining these cases and doing all we can to bring justice to the criminals who may have avoided punishment for so long.”
Addressing civil rights violators, Gonzales said: “You have not gotten away with anything — we are still on your trail.”
Officials declined to release details about which cases have been reopened, or where, but said that nearly all are located in 14 states in the South. Investigators later confirmed, for example, that the unsolved 1946 lynching of four sharecroppers on the Moore’s Ford Bridge near Monroe, Ga., was among those being investigated.
But they declined to comment on whether another high-profile case was being included — that of Maceo Snipes, a black World War II veteran who in 1946 was shot in the back by four white men a day after he voted for the first time. No one was ever arrested in the killing, which happened in rural Georgia, about 90 miles south of Atlanta, and there is no evidence that a criminal probe in the case was ever opened.
‘A lot of stones to turn over’
Many of the FBI’s cases are also included on a list of 76 homicides suspected of being racially motivated that was compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala. Center President Richard Cohen said the government’s renewed focus on the cold cases could help uncover what he called “a few burning embers.”
“There are a lot of stones to turn over,” Cohen said. “I think it would be wrong to give families false hope, but I think it would be right to say that people still care.”
Mueller said the FBI began re-examining its old case files over a year ago amid of spate of civil rights cases that investigators and prosecutors successfully solved.
Most recently, the Justice Department brought kidnapping and conspiracy charges last month against James Ford Seale, 71, in the 1964 abductions and murders of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee in southwest Mississippi. Seale has pleaded not guilty and is due for trial in April.
The center, which reports on hate crimes, forwarded a list of cases to the FBI in the hopes that it would be helpful in future investigations. The center's researchers say many of the people on its list died at the hands of law enforcement officers. If whites were charged, they were often exonerated by sympathetic juries, researchers said.
‘Significant’ proof of racial motive
"In each case there was significant evidence that the death may have been a racial murder," said Mark Potok, director of the center's Intelligence Project.
Researchers started the list in the late 1980s when the group was putting together a civil rights memorial.
"We did a lot of research on these names and we're very hopeful that this information will be helpful to the FBI and particularly that it will be helpful to the families of those who were murdered," Potok said.
Thirty-two of the deaths happened in Mississippi. The others were in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and New York.
Last month, Mueller said the bureau was aggressively seeking to solve cold civil rights cases, vowing to "pursue justice to the end, and we will, no matter how long it takes, until every living suspect is called to answer for their crimes."
Horace Harned, 86, a former Mississippi legislator and member of the segregationist Sovereignty Commission, said he’d prefer that authorities leave the past in the past and not reopen the cases, but “I don’t think there’s anything we can do to stop it.”
“I think we shouldn’t dig up too much of these things,” Harned said.
He added: “We’ll have to let justice prevail. I believe in the jury system. As long as the jury system is maintained properly, we should go to it and let justice prevail.”