Civil Rights Cold Cases Coming To A Close

After three years, the FBI is winding down its investigation into more than 100 cold case murders from the civil rights era. Guest host Audie Cornish talks with FBI special agent in charge Cynthia Deitle about what the investigations have yielded.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Audie Cornish.

It has been more than three years since the FBI announced it would pursue more than a hundred unsolved civil rights killings from our nation's darkest history. Now the bureau is preparing to close the books on many of those investigations. Some have been solved, some remain in limbo. Some deaths have been found to be unrelated to civil rights at all.

Special Agent Cynthia Deitle has been heading the FBI's cold case team and she joins us here in the studio. Agent Cynthia Deitle, welcome.

Agent CYNTHIA DEITLE (Civil Rights Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation): Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: Now, three years doesnt really seem like a long time for a hundred-plus investigations. Why is it winding down now?

Agent DEITLE: It's winding down now in 2010 because we figured out who did it and we figured out which cases the subjects are deceased, and there's nothing law enforcement can do, which cases should not have been on the list. About 20 percent of the cases the death of victim was not a racially charged homicide. It could have been an accidental drowning, we've had that. We've had individuals that die in a house fire.

So we've learned that some of these victims' deaths maybe should not have been included on the list. Now having said that, in some respects Im glad they were because we have a few cases where the family believed their loved one was killed by the Klan. Well, we found out that wasnt true. Their family was killed, let's say, in a bar fight. We've had that situation.

CORNISH: So can you tell us about a case you did solve that gives you particular satisfaction?

Agent DEITLE: There were two cases. The first case was Ben Chester White(ph) who was murdered by Ernest Henry Avants(ph) in Mississippi. The second case is the murder of Charles Moore(ph) and Henry Dee(ph) by James Ford Seale(ph) and others. Moore and Dee were looking for a ride. They were hitchhiking at the time and they were kidnapped, beaten and ultimately killed on federal property.

The interesting thing about both of those cases is, through the work of journalists, they were able to uncover evidence that give us federal jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute both of these murderers. We only have jurisdiction, the FBI and the Department of Justice, if a federal law was violated. Many of the cold cases dont implicate those federal statutes.

The other obstacles are common sense, really. It's a lot of people who have knowledge of these cases are dead. A lot of them who are still alive are reluctant to come forward. They're scared of retaliation by relatives of the perpetrators. There's also evidentiary problems. A lot of the police reports from the '40s and '50s and '60s dont exist anymore.

CORNISH: And I can imagine in some cases the local law enforcement was less than helpful in investigating in the first place.

Agent DEITLE: Whats been very encouraging is if local law enforcement was reluctant or hostile at the time to help the FBI, thats changed in the majority of jurisdictions. Local law enforcement has been instrumental in assisting us with our efforts.

CORNISH: What kind of closure can you really give a family if you can't give them an indictment?

Agent DEITLE: I think the only thing that we can give them is the truth. We can sit down with a family and talk to them and say, we're going to talk to you about every investigative step that we took in the last year, or in the last two years or in the last 50 years, and we're going to tell you what we did and what we found.

If we tell you at the end that the perpetrator is deceased, we're going to tell you that. We're going to tell you why we can't do anything more with this. We'll be honest with you and give you the complete truth and story, as to what happened to your father, or your uncle or your mother. And if the FBI doesnt do this, there's no one else that can.

CORNISH: And I understand that you're actually going to be sending physical letters out to these families, informing them of the status of these investigations.

Agent DEITLE: Thats correct. Myself and the Department of Justice officials agreed that we needed to sit down and talk to the family and give them something. Give them a letter, give them an explanation as to what we found and what can or cannot be done with their case at this point. And that may be the end of the case as to how we close it.

It's a very different way, I think, than how the FBI is used to closing criminal cases. But I think it's the absolute right thing to do. The family is entitled to know what happened.

CORNISH: Okay, FBI Special Agent Cynthia Deitle, thank you for coming in today.

Agent DEITLE: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me.

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