Cold cases difficult to prosecute

Published 2:14 pm Monday, March 12, 2007

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in the Wilson Daily Times.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 74 murders from 1952 to 1968 that it wants the FBI and local prosecutors to reopen and investigate with the hope of indicting and convicting those responsible for these ‘‘cold case’’ murders.
All of the murders involve civil rights workers or racially motivated killings. Three of the unsolved murders are in North Carolina — in Gaston, New Bern and Shelby. Thirty-two of the cases are from Mississippi.
While we applaud the idea of bringing to justice the perpetrators who have, thus far, gotten away with murder, some precautions should be observed. Some of these murders are more than 50 years old. If the murderers can be identified, they have a good chance of being already dead themselves, either from natural causes or from the violence with which they lived.
After so many years — the freshest case is 39 years old — memories fade, evidence is wiped away and witnesses die. The likelihood of reconstructing enough evidence to reach a murder conviction seems slim at best.
Some of the same people pushing for reopening these cases also oppose the death penalty because of the inherent possibility of an erroneous conviction. When a case is decades old, that possibility is multiplied.
Reopening old civil rights cases has had mixed results. A Mississippi grand jury this week declined to indict the woman at whom Emmett Till whistled in 1955, which led to his gruesome murder. After 52 years, there apparently was not enough evidence to show the woman was culpable in the murder.
In 2005, however, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of killing three civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — in 1964. Killen had masterminded one of the most notorious of the crimes of the era. Convicted of three counts of manslaughter, Killen, 80, was sentenced to three 20-year terms.
Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002 of the notorious 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed three children in their Sunday school class. He was sentenced to four life terms but died in prison after serving just two years.
Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers outside his home.
Some convictions are possible, but time is running out for indicting anyone suspected of a 40- or 50-year-old crime, with fading memories, aging witnesses and crumbling evidence.