Congress Responds to Concerns of Racial Murder Victims’ Families with New Legislation
I received a statement and fact sheet from US Representative John Lewis announcing the introduction on Tuesday of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act.
Congress passed the original Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act legislation in 2007 to bring about a “sustained, well-coordinated, and well-funded effort to investigate and prosecute racially motivated murders that occurred on or before December 31, 1969.” In 2008 the Department of Justice reopened 113 race-related murder investigations of civil rights workers and ordinary people. By the Justice Department’s most recent report to Congress (PDF), all but 8 cases have now been closed–without a single prosecution. Since the legislation was signed into law in 2008, victims’ family members have questioned the Justice Department’s seriousness about identifying cases, resolving them and providing adequate information to victims’ families about what happened to their loved ones.
Now acknowledging that there were “gaps” in the Till Act, a bipartisan, bicameral coalition has introduced the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016.
This bill reauthorizes and updates the original legislation that was signed into law in 2008. It seeks to respond to the concerns of victims’ family members and strengthen collaboration between the Justice Department, the FBI, State and local law enforcement, and advocates to pursue these cold cases.
The House (H.R.5067) bill is led by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). The Senate (S.2854) companion is introduced by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-MO), and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO).
“We have an obligation, a mission, and a mandate to continue the effort required to wash away these stains on our democracy,” said Representative Lewis. “I am glad to say this bill incorporates the advice and counsel of numerous individuals and groups who are also dedicated to the pursuit of justice in these matters. Their tireless efforts have helped us improve this legislation so that more work can be done to end the pain, doubt and the inconsistent application of justice that has languished unattended for decades.”
According to Lewis’ statement, the new legislation:
- Provides clearer direction and improved coordination between federal, state, and local law enforcement and the activists, advocates, and academics working on these issues;
- Establishes a public-private joint taskforce to coordinate the investigations;
- Strengthens the Department of Justice’s reporting requirements;
- Eliminates the pre-1969 time limitation on investigations;
- Eliminates the sunset provision in the original bill;
- Requires the Department of Justice to review specific closed cases that warrant further investigation;
- Maintains the previous funding levels;
- Establishes the process to reopen, review, and update the public on the cases previously closed and explain the outcome of cases referred to the Department of the Justice; and
- Clarifies the law’s intent.
Over the last eight years, reporters and advocates have identified problems of coordination among officials, poor reporting of investigative results and a lack of clarity regarding the the intent of the Till Act.
In 2011, for example, an FBI agent pressed me to violate journalistic ethics and expose my sources and turnover my unpublished notes.
“I do not want to close this case,” [Special Agent Bradley] Hentschel said during a telephone interview in 2011, “but if I can’t develop any further leads…it’s going to be a hard sell to the DOJ, to even my supervisor, that I need to be running around two, two and a half hours away from the office with the gas budget the way that it is and everything else, beating down leads on this case or on any other case where we don’t have any active information coming in.”
Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, Louisiana, found that the FBI ignored sources who came forward.
“I had individuals tell me that they contacted the FBI to tell what they knew about these cold cases, but that the bureau showed little or no interest in what they had to offer,” Nelson said. “In some cases, the caller was asked if he or she could provide ‘probative’ information — did they have evidence as to who killed who? That’s a ridiculous approach. You have to look for ‘pieces’ of the story rather than the one caller or witness who has all the answers.”
Nelson came to realize that the FBI agents could only do as much as their superiors in the Justice Department directed them to do. “Had a handful of agents working in the field been given the time and tools to do nothing but work on these cases, then they would have accomplished much more,” he said.
In 2012, the Syracuse University Cold Case Justice Initiative provided the Justice Department with names of 196 victims of racially suspicious cases warranting further investigation. None of the additional names have been added to the Department’s list of cases under review.
Lewis says the reauthorization “seeks to respond to the concerns of advocates regarding the implementation of the original legislation.” I hope it will be passed quickly and with the full force of its current intent.
There is still time to do better–but not much.