Backers seek expansion of civil rights death law

Associated Press

Birmingham, Ala. – — There has only been one prosecution under the Emmett Till Act, even though the law was passed with the promise of $135 million for police work and an army of federal agents to investigate unsolved killings from the civil rights era. Some deaths aren’t even under review because of a quirk in the law.

Still, proponents are laying the groundwork to extend and expand the act in hopes it’s not too late for some families to get justice.

In nearly six years since the signing of the law, named for a black Chicago teenager killed after flirting with a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, only one person has been prosecuted: A former Alabama trooper who pleaded guilty in 2010 to killing a black protester in 1965.

The government has closed the books on all but 20 of the 126 deaths it investigated under the law, finding many were too old to prosecute because suspects and witnesses had died and memories had faded. And Congress hasn’t appropriated millions of dollars in grant money that was meant to help states fund their own investigations.

Perhaps most frustrating, an unknown number of slayings haven’t even gotten a look because the law doesn’t cover any killings after 1969. That saddens people like Gloria Green-McCray, whose brother James Earl Green was shot to death on May 14, 1970 by police during a student demonstration at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.

The family never learned the name of the shooter, and no one was ever prosecuted.

“We’ve never really got any closure because of the investigation not being thorough and everything just being kicked out,” said Green-McCray. “It was like, ‘Just another black person dead. I mean, so what?’ ”

In a January report to Congress, the Justice Department said prosecutors are still continuing their work.

Hoping to spur more action, the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have passed resolutions asking the federal government for more thorough reviews and to spend the money that was authorized in 2007.

SCLC President Charles Steele Jr. called the Till Act a major disappointment and said it may be time for marches.

“We can never let people think they can get away with these types of horrific crimes,” he said.

The law expires in 2017 unless Congress extends it. The NAACP’s vice president for advocacy, Hilary Shelton, said supporters have had “informal discussions” about expanding the law, partly to allow for the review of deaths that happened after 1969.