Feds on Cold Cases: 109 Problems, But “Progress” Ain’t One

Veteran civil rights reporter Hank Klibanoff rips into DOJ's crawling investigations.

By Naima Ramos-Chapman Aug 11, 2010

The second progress report issued by the Justice Department on its efforts to solve 109 cold cases from the 1950s and 1960s, which are believed to have been racially motivated, is a 12-page hearty, but undeserving self-congratulatory pat on the back. What actual progress the department has made is hard to discern, according to investigative journalist Hank Klibanoff. In a Washington Post op-ed piece, first spotted at The Root, Klibanoff had this to say about the department’s lack of vigor:

"We believe that we have made great progress this year," the report concludes. The department prosecuted two cases, both holdovers from before the initiative, and closed 54 without prosecution. 

The report doesn’t address the 53 other cases but devotes many of its 12 pages to throat clearing, describing the processes Justice has undertaken to get ready to organize, to prepare, to gear up and to gather the information it would need to investigate cases it should have resolved over the past 50 years.

Fifteen times in 12 pages the report touts Justice and FBI "outreach" and "reaching out" to black establishment organizations and at university and government conferences — as though that is where cases against Ku Klux Klansmen are going to be cracked. In short, the report is a view from where Justice and the FBI seem to be sitting: the sidelines.

Where the department has been dragging its feet in actively investigating these cases, driven journalists and passionate law professors and students have been picking up the slack, reports Klibanoff:

Every case that Justice has successfully prosecuted has been the result of work by investigative reporters. The killers of Medgar Evers; the four little girls in the Birmingham church; Vernon Dahmer; Ben Chester White; and Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman would not have been prosecuted and convicted without the discoveries made by reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.


For more than three years, law professors Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson of Syracuse University and Margaret Burnham of Northeastern University, aided by their students, have broken important ground, working at a pace and with a passion far exceeding anything Justice or the FBI has shown. Rarely do they or the investigative reporters and documentary filmmakers I work with through the Civil Rights Cold Case Project come across FBI tracks.

Read the whole op-ed here.