The 5-Minute Briefing: America reopens civil rights cases

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The Independent US

Another case is being reopened dating from America's civil rights struggles of decades ago. What's going on?

Another case is being reopened dating from America's civil rights struggles of decades ago. What's going on?

This week the FBI exhumed the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who became a horrific icon of the civil rights turmoil in the American South after he was kidnapped from the home of relatives in Mississippi in 1955, tortured and murdered. The investigation is far from unique. Over several years, no fewer than 20 cases have been reopened from an era many Americans would much rather forget.

What do they hope to achieve by exhuming Till?

An autopsy on Till was never conducted and rumours swirled for years that the body may have been of someone else. Aside from positively identifying him, the FBI hopes DNA techniques may resolve questions about his killers. Two men were acquitted by an all-white Mississippi jury, but soon after admitted to it in a magazine interview. They are both dead, but others may have been involved who may still be alive. This could mean a new trial soon.

Why weren't these cases properly investigated and tried at the time?

Justice was applied with racial selectivity at a time when membership of the Ku Klux Klan was common and whites dominated every aspect of law enforcement - from the sheriffs and prosecutors to the 12 men and women on juries. Federal officials could have intervened in many cases but the federal government was reluctant to offend the important base of white voters in the South.

After all this time, is it likely that anyone will really be convicted?

It's happened already. In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the infamous 1963 killing of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. De La Beckwith was sentenced to life imprisonment but died seven years later. In 2002, a former Ku Klux Klansman, Bobby Frank Cherry, who was 72, became the third man convicted for the murder of four African-American girls in the 1963 bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

What's coming next?

The autopsy examination of Till is likely to take several weeks, but we could see charges laid against new defendants. Before that happens, we will see the opening of the trial of 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, recently charged with planning the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964. The crime was the inspiration for the 1988 film Mississippi Burning and the trial, due to begin on 13 June, is likely to be the most sensational of all the trials from the civil rights era.

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