The Department of Justice’s Efforts to Investigate and Prosecute Unsolved Civil Rights Era Homicides
Jan 7, 2017

The Civil Rights Division launched this website to make information about the Justice Department’s investigation of unsolved homicides—or “cold cases”—from the Civil Rights Era more accessible to the public.

The Department has been pursuing justice in these horrific cases for years—from assisting in prosecuting Edgar Ray Killen in 2005, making him the eighth defendant convicted for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi (the “Mississippi Burning” case); to securing life sentences in 2003 against the perpetrators of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama; to the 2007 federal conviction and life sentence of James Ford Seale for the kidnapping and murder of two teenagers in Franklin County, Mississippi in 1964.  Congress recognized the importance of these federal efforts when it enacted the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act in 2008.

Unfortunately, in many cases legal and evidentiary barriers prevent the Department from moving forward with prosecution.  The Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution limits our ability to prosecute most Civil Rights Era crimes because the relevant federal statutes were either enacted after the offense occurred or the statute of limitations has long since run.  There are also practical reasons we cannot proceed.  In many cases, suspects and witnesses have died, memories have faded, and physical evidence was either never collected or has been destroyed.  In other cases, the facts indicate the death was accidental, a suicide, or otherwise noncriminal.  Accordingly, most cases—including many in which a crime occurred—do not get to court.

Nonetheless, these stories should be told.  There is value in a public reckoning with the history of racial violence and the complicity of government officials.  In each case that is not prosecutable, we write a closing memo explaining the investigative steps taken and the basis for our conclusion.  Given the significant public interest in these cases and the age of the underlying facts, the Department has voluntarily waived certain privileges that would normally apply to these memos (while making mandatory redactions under the Privacy Act).

This website will make all Civil Rights Division closing memos available to the public in a format that is fully text-searchable.  The memos can also be sorted by date of incident.  To date, we have uploaded 52 of 106 closing memos.  The Division is working to place the remaining memos online and will continue to update this site with any cases that are closed in the future.  We hope that these materials will be of use to researchers, historians, community leaders, and members of the general public.

If any member of the public discovers new information related to any closed case, or otherwise needs to contact the Civil Rights Division about any case, please call (202) 514-4609 or (TTY) (202) 514-0716.

List of cold case closing memoranda

Updated November 10, 2016

Read overview


Get the newsletter