WASHINGTON – The House passed a bill Wednesday to establish a new division of federal prosecutors and FBI agents focused strictly on cracking unsolved murders from the civil rights era.
The bill, which is also moving swiftly through the Senate, would authorize $10 million a year over the next decade to create a unit at the Justice Department to pursue cases that have sat cold for decades. It also would earmark $2 million per year in grants for state and local law enforcement agencies to investigate cases where federal prosecution isn't practical, and another $1.5 million to improve coordination among investigating agencies.
The bill, passed 422-2, is named in honor of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who was beaten and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman. His killers were never convicted.
"We must do something to right these wrongs," said Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights veteran who sponsored the bill. "We have an obligation ... let us move to close this dark stain on our nation's history."
State and federal prosecutors have had a string of successes recently in reopening racially motivated slayings from the 1950s and 1960s, including the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing and the 1964 slayings of three civil rights volunteers in Mississippi.
Most recently, prosecutors last week won the conviction of reputed Klansman James Ford Seale on federal charges of kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 deaths of Charles Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. The 19-year-olds disappeared from Franklin County, Miss., in 1964, and their bodies were found later in the Mississippi River.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department announced it was reopening investigations into about a dozen suspicious deaths in the South. But lawmakers and advocates say there are dozens, if not hundreds, more cases that are ripe for review.
At a recent hearing, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Grace Chung Becker said the department plans to review at least 100 more cases, many based on files turned over by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which has long pressed for more prosecutions.
Becker and others have cautioned that the cases are very difficult to prosecute because witnesses have died or forgotten details, evidence has been lost and laws have changed.
The bill is HR 923.