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Cold Case Killers

Locals in the deep south are trying to uncover the truth about race hate crimes committed in America's Civil Rights era.
Last modified: 17 Dec 2013 22:10

The Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, Louisiana is the rarest of newspapers. It’s managed to survive the rise of the internet and is actually located in the community that it serves. It’s also a publication that has allowed reporter Stanley Nelson the time and resources to investigate a racially motivated local murder.

"You know you can't leave crimes unsolved," Stanley tells me in his quiet southern drawl. "They haunt generations and they leave people with a distrust of the law." The murder in question happened in 1964 at the height of the civil rights era and it was both bloody and violent. Local businessman Frank Morris was well liked and his shoe repair business was a vital part of the community. But for members of the local Ku Klux Klan Frank Morris was someone seen as too comfortable with white people. The night he was attacked Frank Morris was forced to stay inside his business at gunpoint while a gang set fire to the building and fled. Four days later Mr Morris died from horrific burns and refused to identify any of his attackers.

No-one has ever been charged with his murder. "Frank Morris was a good man," Stanley tells me. "There is nothing that he did to anyone that could have ever deserved being harmed in anyway." But Stanley’s investigation is just the tip of the iceberg.

Just across the bridge that spans the state line between Louisiana and Mississippi the daughters of Clifton Walker are still in search of justice. I meet Catherine and Shirley on a dirt track in Woodville, Mississippi where their father was ambushed and shot in his car in 1964, the same year as Frank Morris’s murder. "This is a sad occasion and yet it’s an opportunity for us to speak for our father," Catherine Walker tells me as she and her sister embrace.

The Walker family is one of many whose case is being investigated by the FBI as part of their Cold Case Initiative. But the family claims their first contact with investigators was when they were handed a letter telling them their father’s case is now closed. "When I got the letter it was like a balloon deflating," says Catherine Walker. "It’s sadness, anger and disappointment in the manner in which this was handled." 

At the FBI’s headquarters in Washington Adam Lee, the man now in charge of the Cold Case Initiative, is more than aware of the frustrations of those seeking answers. "One of the biggest challenges for us was managing expectations," says Lee who has been in charge of the unit for the past 18 months. He goes on to tell me that his investigators are in a race against time and doing their best with degraded evidence and fading memories.

Ultimately the FBI wants, and may still get, some prosecutions but Adam Lee says even without them the programme is a success. "I think that when we complete our effort in this initiative, what I hope we can look back and say is that we achieved some type of closure, that we as the nation's leading law enforcement agency for civil rights applied our very best to figure our exactly what happened in these cases."

The Cold Case Initiative started out with over 100 suspected racially motivated murder cases and are now down to just 13. The FBI tells me the final few cases are still open "for good reason" but the closure of so many other unsolved cases has led to disappointment and anger amongst those whose hopes were initially raised. Many had hoped justice would finally be served but Ferriday native Robert Lee has always been pragmatic about his expectations.

"Don’t think that a lot of us was naive enough to think that any of this was going to end in convictions," says the family friend of Frank Morris. "But at least now the world knows something about the people that died and that means something."