Cold Case Justice Initiative Statement on the Guilty Plea in Jimmie Lee Jackson Murder Trial

James Bonard Fowler, a former Alabama state trooper, pleaded guilty yesterday for shooting to death 26-year-old voting rights activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson, on February 18, 1965. At the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) in the College of Law at Syracuse University we see this outcome as mixed. Jackson’s family waited nearly 45 years for justice, only to see the Judge sentence Fowler to six months in jail, followed by six months of unsupervised probation. The murder charges posed significant legal challenges for the District Attorney’s office but the sentence does not reflect the magnitude of the criminal offense that occurred.

On that fateful day a peaceful march turned deadly. Jackson, his grandfather and mother sought refuge in a café. He attempted to shield his mother after a trooper knocked her to the ground and it cost him his life. Fowler shot Jimmie Lee Jackson twice in the abdomen from point blank range. Fowler apologized to the family of Jimmie Lee Jackson as required by the plea agreement. After court, Jackson’s daughter, Cordelia Billingsley said, “This is supposed to be closure, but there will never be closure.”

The CCJI extends our continuing support to Mr. Jackson’s family for their perseverance in the quest for justice. We also commend District Attorney Michael Jackson for taking the initiative to conduct a thorough investigation of this case after previous efforts had not resulted in charges. Without such determination by the District Attorney, trooper Fowler would not have been held accountable within the criminal justice system for killing Mr. Jackson.

The Jimmie Lee Jackson case exemplifies the consequences of decades of disregard, delay and inaction. We will continue to urge federal and state law enforcement officials to act swiftly and fully investigate and prosecute for similar offenses. Like Fowler, there are many perpetrators and accomplices who have yet to be brought to justice or answer for their crimes.

Letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and DOJ Report

The Department of Justice submitted its annual report on the Emmett Till Act to Congress.  While the report notes some key progress in the effort to solve civil rights era crimes, the report is mainly troubling for the approaches that are described and the lack of results from the FBI and Department of Justice in the majority of cases.

The Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University College of Law (CCJI) and the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern University School of Law sent a joint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez to express our concerns about the slow progress on the civil rights era cold cases.

Attached is the joint letter that CCJI and CRRJ sent to Attorney General Holder and AAG Perez.  The Department’s 2010 report also is attached.  In sum, our primary concerns include: (1) the need for State Task Forces with on-site representative from the respective federal and local law enforcement agencies; (2) the need for expedited access to federal government documents regarding the cases for families, lawyers, and other advocates; (3) to need for promptly held meetings with family members and their representatives; (4) the need for detailed reporting to Congress of the allocations and expenditures under the Till Act; and (5) the need for an advisory task force of interested individuals and organizations.

In addition,  CCJI believes very strongly that Congressional hearings are necessary in order for Congress, family members of the victims of racially-motivated killings, and the American public to obtain answers and accountability from the law enforcement agencies that are mandated to implement the Emmett Till Act. Justice delayed must not be justice denied.

Paula C. Johnson and Janis L. McDonald
Professors of Law and Co-Directors,
Cold Case Justice Initiative
Syracuse University College of Law

DOJ Civil Rights Cold Case Report 2010

Letter to Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the Department of Justice’s 2010 Report to Congress on the Emmett Till Act

Cold Case Justice Initiative Statement on Settlement Reached in Dee and Moore vs. Franklin County Civil Lawsuit

The Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) congratulates Thomas Moore and Thelma Collins, whose pursuit of justice on behalf of their 19-year-old brothers Charles Edward Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee culminated in a settlement with the Franklin County, Mississippi government on June 21, 2010. We also congratulate Professor Margaret Burnham, her co-counsel and students at the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Program at Northeastern University Law School (CRRJ)(, who represented the families in this legal victory. The Moore and Dee surviving family members filed a civil lawsuit against Franklin County in 2008 after Klan member James Ford Seale was convicted in a federal criminal trial for his role in the youths’ deaths. The family members’ civil lawsuit alleged collusion between Franklin County law enforcement and other government officials and the Ku Klux Klan. The family members and their attorneys argued that this collusion resulted in under-enforcement and lack of prosecution against the perpetrators of violence against Black citizens, thereby allowing the Klan to commit racial violence with impunity.

Charles Moore and Henry Dee were 19-years-old when they were abducted and tortured by members of the Ku Klux Klan on May 2, 1964, as they hitchhiked outside the small town of Meadville, Mississippi. Klan members took the young Black men to the Homochitto National Forest and tortured them. While they were still alive, they were taken into Louisiana and thrown into the Mississippi River, where they were left to drown. Dee and Moore’s remains were found during the search for the bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the three civil rights workers who were killed by Klan members during Freedom Summer, 1964. After a truncated FBI search, pursuit of the murderers of Dee and Moore was dropped by local and federal authorities.

In 2005, Thomas Moore, the older brother of Charles Moore, conducted his own investigation and upon finding that James Ford Seale, one of the perpetrators of his brother and Dee’s killings was still alive, urged the Department of Justice to reopen an investigation in the case. In 2007, James Ford Seale was convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy leading to the murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee. He currently serves three life sentences for his role in their deaths.

As Professor Burnham noted in her statement after the settlement, “This was an historic undertaking. To my knowledge, this suit is the only one of its kind to have reached settlement. What we sought to prove was common knowledge at the time – that these crimes could not have persisted without support of local officials. The result we achieved makes clear that justice delayed does not always mean justice denied. There is no statute of limitations on murder, no expiration date on moral obligation, and there should be no impunity for human rights violators.”Significantly, Professor Burnham also indicated that “It was during the course of Seale’s criminal trial that information surfaced that formed the basis for the civil case.” Indeed, CCJI provided recently discovered documents demonstrating that certain Franklin County officials at the time were members of the Ku Klux Klan. These documents were vital to CRRJ’s civil case. While the Franklin County government did not admit guilt as part of this settlement, it nevertheless represents an acknowledgement that local and federal law enforcement must make the words “equal justice under law” a meaningful reality for all, regardless of race or other background. The Cold Case Justice Initiative works to ensure that many more perpetrators of outstanding unresolved civil rights era racially-motivated murders will be brought before the criminal justice system. We must continue to insist upon accountability for those who committed these civil rights era atrocities in the criminal courts, as well as in the civil justice system. The Cold Case Justice Initiative is part of these ongoing struggles for justice, and we join the families of those who were slain, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Program, and all others who believe that it is never too late for justice.

Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University College of Law vows to keep fighting for families of klan killings in 1960s

The Cold Case Justice Initiative has received numerous calls today from family members of unsolved civil rights era killings in reaction to the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversing the 2007 kidnapping conviction of
James Ford Seale for the kidnapping deaths of Charles Moore and Henry Dee in Mississippi in 1964. The families and the CCJI are determined to continue their fight to hold individuals legally accountable for the wave of klan violence and terrorism that plagued these families, their loved ones and their communities during that era.

A three judge panel of the 5th Circuit ruled that a five year statute of limitations should have barred this federal criminal prosecution. James Seale was convicted under a federal criminal statute, Title 18 United States Code section 1201(a) and (c). At the time of the deaths of Dee and Moore this death penalty crime did not have a time bar. However, a subsequent 1968 Supreme Court ruling invalidated the death penalty provision in the kidnapping crime and Congress specifically eliminated the death penalty in section 1201. The question addressed by the 5th Circuit was whether this five year limit on prosecutions applied to a crime committed in 1964. They ruled that the change of punishment retroactively changed the statute of limitations to a five year bar against criminal prosecutions.

Professor Janis McDonald, a co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse, called the decision “convoluted and taken out of the larger context of the failure to utilize the law that existed at the time that should have resulted in criminal convictions 43 years ago.” “The court strained to apply the five year bar on prosecutions for this 43 year old neglect of justice. The decision is contrary to well settled Supreme Court decisions that refuse to apply amendments to a statute retroactively, absent a clear statement from Congress to the contrary; instead changes are meant to apply to future conduct prohibited. Even if the logic of the 5th Circuit is followed there was an even more recent amendment that clearly stated that this crime had no statute of limitations yet the court refuses to retroactively apply that statute.

The Cold Case Justice Initiative is an interdisciplinary project that engages faculty and students of law, journalism, history and documentary film to seek justice for racially motivated murders during the Civil Rights era on behalf of the victims, their families, local communities and society at large. Volunteers and students in the course, “Investigating and Reopening Civil Rights Era Murders” assist family members in researching and providing information to government prosecutors to reopen these investigations. The co-directors of the Cold Case Justice Initiative can be reached for comment:

Letter to the Washington Post

The Washington Post recently reported the FBI “is ready to close all but a handful” of ‘cold cases’ from decades ago (WP Feb. 28, 2010). Families who lost loved ones from suspected Klan violence are outraged by the token justice of such long-neglected, partial investigations.

The few recently successful murder prosecutions resulted from family members’ unyielding efforts to attain justice for over 40 years. For many others, the lack of justice remains a gaping wound.

The Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University’s College of Law (CCJI) works with many of these families. Federal law enforcement officials informed the CCJI, for example, that no records existed on the 1964 disappearance of Joseph Edwards from Vidalia, Louisiana. Yet in 2009 CCJI law students discovered dozens of FBI documents from 1967 relating to his murder.

Joseph Edwards’ family and the American public deserve answers. How many other individuals murdered by acts of racial violence will be ignored in the rush to close files? There is still time for full investigations and prosecutions of some of these criminals.

Only Congress can provide the public scrutiny that is required of law enforcement for their failure to pursue prosecutions for over 40 years or to prematurely close investigations. Those who committed these heinous offenses should not escape accountability for the injustices the families of civil rights martyrs continue to suffer.