Ghosts of the Civil Rights Era: It’s Never too Late for Justice

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The Strathmore Speaker Series is proud to announce that Professor Janis McDonald of the Syracuse University College of Law, will speak on the Cold Case Initiative at the Onondaga Park Firebarn on Thursday, April 13th at 7 pm. Like all Strathmore Speaker Series events, this presentation is free and open to the public.

“It’s Never Too Late for Justice.” It’s a simple statement, but one that cuts right to the heart of the Cold Case Justice Initiative. Founded in 2007, by Janis McDonald, a professor at the Syracuse University College of law, and her colleague Professor Paula C. Johnson, the initiative was born out of a desire to help families obtain justice for loved ones killed in acts of racial hatred and violence during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.

The impetus to create the initiative evolved from a request by the family of Frank Morris to reopen the investigation into his unsolved murder.

Morris, a 51-year-old African American business owner in Ferriday, Louisiana, had been held at gunpoint and forced into the back of his burning store by suspected members of the Ku Klux Klan on December 10, 1964. He died four days later, with burns covering nearly the entirety of his body. Although a contemporary investigation by the FBI yielded witnesses who identified two local law enforcement officers as being among those responsible for Morris’ death, no charges or indictments followed, and the case was eventually dropped and forgotten.

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Frank Morris (fourth from left) in front of his store.

Collaborating with journalist Stanley Nelson of the Louisiana Delta Concordia Sentinel some forty years later, the Cold Case Initiative uncovered enough credible evidence to persuade the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, and the District Attorney for Concordia Parish, Louisiana, to form a joint alliance to investigate the newly reopened Frank Morris murder case.

Since this early success, the initiative has received requests for assistance from countless other victims’ families and met with former Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss the need for a special taskforce dedicated to addressing cold cases from Mississippi and Louisiana. In that time, more than fifty College of Law students have volunteered for the project.

coldcaseWebIn addition to co-directing the initiative, McDonald teaches Constitutional Law, Investigating and Reopening Civil Rights Era Murders, Criminal Law, Employment Discrimination and American Legal History at Syracuse. She also co-teaches the interdisciplinary course “Investigating and Reopening Civil Rights Era Murders,” which pairs graduate students from the College of Law with students from Syracuse’s other graduate schools. The course received the 2008 Syracuse University Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement and Scholarship in Action.

Prior to joining Syracuse University, McDonald was a member of the law firm of Hirschkop & Grad, P.C. in Alexandria Virginia where she litigated cases in federal and local courts in the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Virginia. She also taught at Ohio Northern University College of Law and Yale Law School, and was a Ford Foundation Fellow in Public and International Law. She has written several articles on civil rights litigation and American legal history, including some which have been cited by federal courts. She has served as president of the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations and co-founded the Virginia Women Attorneys Association.

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