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Momentum builds for reopening murder cases from civil-rights era

By Lori Silverstein
Court TV

(Court TV) -- About four decades ago authorities in Mississippi ended their investigation into the brutal murders of three civil rights workers who had helped register black voters as a part of the 1964 "Freedom Summer." No one was ever charged with their murders.

Now, as the 40th anniversary of the infamous triple homicide approaches, the brother of one of the victims said he is "without a doubt" more hopeful that the suspects will soon be prosecuted.

"At the time of my brother's murder, it was not fashionable to try a white man for killing a black man. And it definitely wasn't fashionable to try a white man for a killing a black man and two Jews," said Ben Chaney, whose brother James, along with New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, was killed in Philadelphia, Miss.

Chaney's hope is fueled in part by the recent effort of the U.S. Justice Department to reopen the case of Emmett Till -- a black teen who was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955.

In addition, six other cases of civil rights slayings have been successfully prosecuted in the last decade.

The most notorious was the 1994 conviction of Byron Dela Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers.

Chaney, who has been working to reopen his brother's case since 1988, wants Mississippi's governor and attorney general to request a federal prosecutor take on the state murder case.

Miss. Attorney General Jim Hood said the case has been under investigation for the last five years.

Beyond saying he recently interviewed someone about the case, Hood declined to comment on the investigation.

'The time is right'

Following the "Freedom Summer" murders, 21 people were arrested on federal civil rights violations charges. Seven were convicted but none served more than six years in prison. No one was ever charged with murder.

Today, attitudes are different and the atmosphere is ripe for re-examining the murders of civil rights workers, Chaney said. He described a "whole new breed of people in Mississippi," who are more open-minded and willing to consider convicting white defendants now than their grandparents were 40 years ago.

"The time is right for the people in Philadelphia and across the state of Mississippi to move on," Chaney said. "Neshoba County has a negative stigma surrounding it. This group of young people wants to confront that. They no longer want to deny what took place in the '60s."

In May 2002, U.S attorney Doug Jones brought Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry to justice for the deaths of four black girls during the 1963 firebombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. In 2001, Jones also successfully prosecuted Cherry's co-defendant, Thomas Blanton, Jr.

Jones said prosecutors came across additional evidence and statements since the 1963 investigation, which he said strengthened the case.

In addition, the jury that deliberated Cherry's case in 2002 was not the all-white, all-male jury that probably would have decided the verdict 40 years ago. Instead it included three black men, three white men and six white females.

"The biggest thing we had going for us was getting a fair and unbiased jury," Jones said. He added, "People want swift justice. Unfortunately, it can't always be. Things had to evolve around here in order for that to be a fair fight."

Obstacles in old cases

Cherry's defense attorney, Mickey Johnson, who does not believe there was any new evidence in the case, said decisions to reopen cases are not always based on new findings, but rather on political and newsworthy elements.

"I have no quarrel with the idea that you should not allow heinous crimes to go unsolved," Johnson said. "But I think there is a political factor involved that generally would not apply to the run-of-the-mill, ordinary case."

In those situations, waiting decades to prosecute a murder case is unfair to the defendant, Johnson said.

"It certainly would be preferential to have these matters litigated while everyone is available that has some knowledge. In Mr. Cherry's case, the delay worked to his detriment," Johnson said. "So much evidence that would have been admissible 40 years ago became inadmissible."

Reopened cases also are problematic for prosecutors. According to Jones, the names of dead people on his witness list outnumbered those still alive. During the investigation, two witnesses died. In fact, five more witnesses died within a year after the trial, leaving Jones to wonder what the verdict would have been if Cherry's case had been postponed.

In addition, prosecutors and defense attorneys have to contend with the faded memories of older witnesses. Some witnesses simply cannot recall statements they gave decades ago. Others repress memories they are ashamed of, Jones said.

"You're interviewing people who were not sympathetic to the civil rights cause at the time," he said. "Even if they have completely reformed and completely changed their attitude, they're still reluctant to get involved in an issue of the '50s and '60s, which they are not very proud of."

Great expectations

Of course, not every reopened case makes it to trial. And not every case that goes to trial ends in a conviction, Jones said.

"The expectations are if you reopen a case, you can indict a case, and if you indict a case, you'll get a conviction," Jones said. "I applaud the opening of the [Till] investigation, but people shouldn't get their hopes up."

According to research by Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., who has been following the progress on civil rights murder cases since 1989, 15 cases have been reopened in six states. Of those, six have been successfully prosecuted and five have been closed, and four are still pending. While most cases were closed after suspects died, he said others lacked strong investigations.

"It has a lot to do with the quality of the investigation at the time," Mitchell said. "If it was a case involving extensive investigation, you've got a better shot."

The perfect example of a weak investigation is the Till case, he said. During the 1955 trial, in which two white men were acquitted, the investigating sheriff testified for the defense and suggested the NAACP planted the murdered body.

State prosecutors have a litany of pending questions to answer before they will know whether the Till case will ever go to trial.

"Who's still alive? Are they competent to stand trial? Who remembers what they did," said Hallie Gail Bridges, assistant district attorney from Mississippi's Fourth Judicial District.

40 years later

Mitchell said he believes prosecutors have a much better chance with the "Freedom Summer" murder case based on transcripts available from the federal conspiracy trial in 1967.

"If I were picking cases, that one's far more viable," Mitchell said.

But each case has an edge up thanks to the ones that came before. The pattern in the last decade has been one successful case leading to another.

"It's been a fascinating phenomenon to witness," Mitchell said. "Each case has built off the previous one."

Whether suspects in the Till case or other cases like the "Freedom Summer" slayings will ever be prosecuted still remains to be seen. In the meantime, the obstacles surrounding decades-old cases are not deterring Chaney from seeking justice for his brother's murderers.

"The need for truth is there," he said. "To continually push for the trial to take place in Mississippi is a way of confronting racism and the Klan."

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