Larrissa Moore skipped the typical law school summer vacation at a beach. Instead, she spent her summer break holed up inside a Presbyterian church in Georgia, reviewing unsolved murder cases from the civil-rights era.The Mississippi College School of Law student says she wants to be a federal judge, but until that day comes she’s figuring out how to serve justice any way she can.
Moore, 24, spent 10 weeks reviewing old police records looking for clues to help her close unresolved civil-rights era killings, including suspicious cases that may have involved officers pulling the trigger. But the enthusiasm Moore had when she arrived to her internship quickly turned to anger. Moore said she quickly realized many of the officer shootings she was looking at from the 1950s and 1960s sounded a lot like the cases she was seeing in the news in 2015.
“The Michael Browns and Walter Scotts, they’re all repeated,” said Moore, who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and got her undergraduate degree from Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women.
Moore is still hopeful about what she can achieve in the criminal justice system but says it’s frustrating “to go back and read these newspaper headlines and see that the exact same thing is happening today, that we really haven’t progressed in over 60 years.”
The other scary phenomenon that Moore sees repeating itself over and over: police officers with ties to white supremacist groups.
Moore and four other law school students interned with the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI), a Syracuse University program that investigates unsolved civil rights murders. This year the students were hosted by the Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia.
The students looked at cases from as early as 1946 all the way to 1969, the period allowed by the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. Congress passed the act in 2008 and provided $10 million annually for the FBI and the Department of Justice to investigate unresolved racially motivated killings.
And although CCJI was founded to review civil rights cases the small group still gets calls from people looking for help in more recent suspicious murders. In July, Moore started assisting with the case of Rexdale Henry, 53-year-old Native American man who was found dead in a Mississippi jail cell.
Henry was found dead just a day after Sandra Bland was found dead in her Texas jail cell. Henry’s cellmate has been charged with murder. Texas officials said Bland’s autopsy found injuries consistent with suicide. But questions still remain in both cases.
Ties with the KKK
Larrissa Moore focused her research on police officers with ties to the KKK and found one of the group’s first orders was to infiltrate the police department—“because the laws don’t apply to them if they are the law,” she said.
“If you think about the history with the police department, they were pretty much set up to continue white supremacy,” said Moore, who noted the first black law enforcement officials in Georgia were hired in the mid 1940s.
“We had black officers but they could not arrest white people,” said Moore, who said this illustrated that blacks were still inferior in the eyes of the law.
Law enforcement connections with white supremacist groups have continued into present day.
Last year a Florida deputy police chief resigned after the FBI reported that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. No criminal wrongdoing was found for the former police chief of Fruitland Park, a town about 40 miles northwest of Orlando.
“It’s not a crime to hate people. It may be despicable, it may be immoral, but it’s not a crime,” Chief Deputy State Attorney Ric Ridgway told the Orlando Sentinel in July 2014.
A year after he resigned the former deputy police chief was hired in a food service position at a local elementary school. He only lasted in the new job for three days before parents who recognized him pushed him out.
In September a Louisiana police detective was fired after pictures surfaced of him at a KKK rally giving a Nazi salute. A few months earlier the civil-rights group The Southern Poverty Law Center exposed an Anniston, Alabama, police officer for speaking at a rally of the known hate group League of the South.
Law enforcement ties to white supremacist groups have been uncovered outside of the South as well.
A federal judge in 1991 described a clique of deputies at the Lynwood Sheriff’s station in Los Angeles as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang.” The judge’s finding came after more than 70 Lynwood residents filed a lawsuit alleging deputies engaged “in systematic acts of shooting, killing, brutality, terrorism, house-trashing and other acts of lawlessness and wanton abuse of power,” especially against Latinos and blacks, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“There is a direct link between departmental policy makers, who tacitly authorize deputies’ unconstitutional behavior, and the injuries suffered by the plaintiffs,” wrote U. S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. The county of Los Angeles agreed to a settlement in 1996, promising to retrain deputies and pay $7.5 million to compensate victims of alleged abuses.
Years later in 2012 the L.A. Times reported the L.A. county undersheriff, the department’s second in command, had a Lynwood Vikings tattoo, the name of the group the judge referred to as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang.” Former undersheriff Paul Tanaka admitted to having a Vikings tattoo on an ankle and told a local radio station that “it was no big thing. [The viking] was a mascot.”
Tanaka left the department in 2013 and is now the mayor of Gardena, a Los Angeles suburb with a population of 60,000 residents. His office did not respond to Fusion’s request for comment.
In an October 2006 report the FBI reported that “white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement” is a “concern” because it can lead to “investigative breaches and can jeopardize the safety of law enforcement sources and personnel.”
The FBI report noted the First Amendment’s freedom of association provision can protect law enforcement officials’ rights to join white supremacist groups for the purposes of lawful activity. However, the government can limit employment opportunities of hate group members if their “memberships would interfere with their duties.”
While noting that the threat still exists, the FBI acknowledged the same findings that Larrissa Moore found in her research: white supremacists groups and leaders “have historically engaged in strategic efforts to infiltrate and recruit from law enforcement communities.”
Still cold and running out of time
In many of the cases the law students reviewed, they say if police investigations had “done more there could have been justice for some of these families,” explained Mandisa Styles, a Mercer School of Law student.
The FBI so far has not reviewed any of the 37 cases sent to them by The Cold Case Justice Initiative, according to the group’s founders. The FBI did not respond to several requests for comment. And the extension that allows the interns to review these unsolved cases is running out of time—the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act expires in 2017.
“We have discovered hundreds of killings that aren’t on the FBI’s list that no one’s ever done a full accounting of all the people who have been killed either by Klan or by suspicious police shootings,” said Janis McDonald, a law professor at Syracuse University who co-founded CCJI with law professor Paula Johnson.
Earlier this year the co-directors formed a working group within the United Nation’s Human Rights Council Network called Accountability of U.S. for Inaction on Racist Killings, which will examine civil-rights era killings and lynchings and suspicious police killings from the era of slavery until today. McDonald and Johnson went to the U.N. with hopes of requiring the U.S. to respond to these killings.
“Young people today need to put this in context of what happened in the recent past that really has helped contribute to what is going on today,” said Janis McDonald, a law professor at Syracuse University, who co-founded CCJI with law professor Paula Johnson.
This year at least 909 people have been killed by law enforcement officials, according to KilledByPolice.net, a website that tracks police killings by collecting corporate news reports.
A white police officer killed a black person nearly two times a week during a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to a USA Today analysis of the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide reported to the FBI.
“This work is so important, because history is repeating itself,” said Larrissa Moore.
“If we don’t go back and address these old cases and get accountability for them, it’s going to keep happening.”