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Families who held out hope for prosecution have been disappointed. In a report to Congress in October, the Justice Department acknowledged the low yield from what it always considered to be long-shot efforts to develop cases worthy of prosecution.
The report said the FBI’s cold-case initiative had resulted in one successful federal prosecution, of James Ford Seale, who was convicted in 2007 in the deaths of two young black men in 1964. It also said the FBI had assisted in the 2010 state prosecution of a former Alabama trooper, James Bonard Fowler, in the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old civil rights marcher who died after a confrontation with the police in 1965.
Left unsaid in the report was that these prosecutions were prompted in large part by the work of investigative journalists including Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., John Fleming of the Anniston Star in Alabama, and David Ridgen, a Canadian documentary filmmaker.
As difficult as it might be to receive a letter saying that the investigation into your loved one’s death is being closed without a satisfying conclusion, there is the different pain of having no resolution at all, as in the 20 or so cold cases that remain open.
“Why they open it and why they open up wounds, I don’t know,” said Debra Sylvester, a daughter of Wharlest Jackson, whose pickup truck was blown up in 1967 after he accepted a promotion into a supervisory — that is, white — position at a tire plant. “My mama always said all you can do is pray. One day they’re going to have to give an account. One day they’re going to have to give an account to their maker.”