President Barack Obama has signed an extension of a 2008 law that contributes federal funds to reopen investigations of race-based killings committed decades ago.
Obama on Friday extended the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act, which followed the reopening in 2006 of more than 100 "cold cases" linked to civil rights issues and to the identification of new deaths where racial motives were suspected.
Till was a 14-year-old African-American who was abducted, fatally beaten and mutilated in 1955 in Mississippi, reputedly because he had whistled at a white woman. The men tried for his murder were acquitted, but in an interview later they admitted they had killed the boy. Because of a procedural defense known as double jeopardy, they could not be tried a second time.
Till's case is one of many race-based deaths that have occurred in the U.S. since the 1950s that were poorly investigated. Prosecutions of killers in such cases have been rare.
The original Emmett Till law provided federal resources to local investigations of such crimes. One new conviction has resulted from the law so far: James Fowler, an Alabama state trooper who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson after a civil rights protest in 1965, pleaded guilty of manslaughter in 2010 at age 77 and was sentenced to six months in prison.
The reauthorization of the law allows the Justice Department and FBI to expand their investigations from cold cases before 1970, to those that have also occurred before 1980. It also requires the Justice Department and the FBI to consult with civil rights groups, universities and other organizations collecting data on such events.
Before the Till law took effect, the reopening and prosecutions of civil rights cold cases since 1989 had led to 24 convictions, including that of Byron De La Beckwith in 1994 for the assassination of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963. Beckwith received a life sentence and died in prison.
The Justice Department and FBI also took the lead in the prosecutions of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, who in 2001 and 2002, respectively, were convicted of murder in the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 that killed four young African-American girls.
In 2003, the Justice Department successfully prosecuted Ernest Avants for the 1966 killing of Ben Chester White, a 67-year-old black man in Natchez, Mississippi, by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.
In 2007, the Justice Department convicted James Ford Seale of kidnapping and killing Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore in 1964 in Meadville, Mississippi.
The deaths of those two black men were discovered during an investigation of the notorious disappearance of three civil-rights workers — Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — who had traveled to Mississippi from New York City to help African-Americans register to vote. The bodies of the civil rights workers, two of whom were white, were discovered buried under an earthen dam 44 days after the men disappeared in 1964, but the Mississippi state government refused to prosecute.
In 1967, the federal government prosecuted 18 individuals for involvement in the crime; seven were convicted but received relatively minor sentences. Almost four decades later, former Ku Klux Klan organizer Edgar Ray Killen was convicted on three counts of manslaughter for the deaths. His appeal of the 2005 conviction was unsuccessful, and he is currently serving a 60-year prison term in Mississippi.