Law Professors Lead Cold Case Justice Initiative

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Campus Perspectives
Syracuse University
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The Cold Case Justice Initiative is an interdisciplinary project that engages Syracuse University College of Law faculty and students to seek justice for racially motivated murders during the Civil Rights era. For three days Syracuse law professors Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson research tediously with students hoping to solve murders that occurred during the Civil Rights era under suspicious circumstances. Students meet a Freedom Rider and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., speak with the families of the murder victims, and help solve a cold case in Ferriday, Louisiana.



"Law Professors Lead Cold Case Justice Initiative." Syracuse University, correspondent. Campus Perspectives. 10 June 2013. NBC Learn. Web. 30 May 2015.


University, S. (Reporter). (2013, June 10). Law Professors Lead Cold Case Justice Initiative. [Television series episode]. Campus Perspectives. Retrieved from


"Law Professors Lead Cold Case Justice Initiative" Campus Perspectives, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 06/10/2013. Accessed Sat May 30 2015 from NBC Learn:


Law Professors Lead Cold Case Justice Initiative

KEITH KOBLAND, Reporter, Syracuse University: Atlanta, Georgia, a city of half a million people, a city with a vibrant downtown, filled with the laughter of children at Olympic Centennial Park.  It’s home to many corporations, along with the worldwide leader for cable network news.  But it’s also a city with a not so well kept secret. 

JANIS MCDONALD, CCJI Co-Director: We’ve discovered a large number of cases in Georgia and, and a huge number of that happens to be Atlanta.  And so Atlanta is a place where maybe we’ll get people to come to terms with this not as history but as a real opportunity to go after the people that are still out there.

KOBLAND: Syracuse University law professors, Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald have brought a group of hand selected and highly motivated law students to Atlanta as part of the Cold Case Justice Initiative.  They seek answers and closure for the families of men, women, and children who died under suspicious circumstances during the Civil Rights era. 

PAULA JOHNSON, CCJI Co-Director: So much has been either unexplored or has been dormant for a long time and we have to unearth that information.  We have to find it, we have to let people know that it exists and so you just have to be very tenacious in terms of the commitment, the desire, the willingness to do what it takes.  You know we talked about the fact that sometimes its frankly quite tedious work.  You know, you’re pouring over pages and reports and looking through files reading you know reams and reams of information trying to find something that connects, right, something that opens a door and then you want to be able to walk through that door.

KOBLAND: A total of 13 students will branch out to speak to loved ones in places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jackson, Mississippi, Nashville, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida. 

JOHNSON: And what we want to do so from Atlanta is to extend that to the other cities where the project is new or our presence on the ground is new.  Because Atlanta certainly isn’t unique in that respect so we want the students this summer to be able to see what’s going on in other places where those victims also haven’t been identified and bring that to the public’s awareness so we can try to get justice for people in other places as well. 

KOBLAND: Among this group are 2 students from the College of Law at Syracuse University with their own personal reason for getting involved.

JILLIAN DASILVA: I first learned about the Cold Case Justice Initiative when Corporal Ducksworth came to the College of Law to give a short presentation on his experience and it just really touched me so as I mentioned earlier in the orientation today I am just a person who’s you know very sensitive to violence.

CALLIE MONCUS: I’m taking part in it because I admire my grandfather.  He was invited to a Klan meeting when my brother and I were young and he took us, took us with him not knowing that it was a Klan meeting, he thought it was just a bunch of old men getting together to fish and cook the fish.  And when he found out he got really offended and grabbed us and left.  So he took a stand and I really admire him for it and that’s why I’m here.

KOBLAND: Each student has a compelling reason for taking part, each hoping to help find closure for the most important element in all of this, the families who have been left behind. 

Before students involved in the Cold Case Justice Initiative set off to uncover the truth, professors Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald wanted to give them a better understanding of what’s at stake.


LACHIQUITA MCCRAY, University of Mississippi: It was a very humbling experience actually I have seen and heard a lot of things and read a lot of things like this.  But to actually see it to be in the environment, to be in the atmosphere, I really enjoyed it.  I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know before.

KOBLAND: But this was much more than a chance to tour the King Center and learn more about the slain civil rights leader. 

MARGARETTE NELSON: My faith and trust is in God that I find out what happened to my 3 baby sisters, Ruby Lee, Beatrice, and Annie Marie. 

KOBLAND: It was here that students heard compelling stories from family members still seeking the truth nearly half a century later.

MARK O’BRIEN: Powerful is the first word that comes to mind and it was very moving to you know?  I worked with CCJI for 2 years since I started law school and it’s one thing to work through the documents, to try to do the research, and to read descriptions of the cases and do that work.  It’s completely another to sit in the same room with these family members and hear their stories, see their pain come through, and the fact that they’ve been fighting for justice for 40, 50 years.  And no one is taking the time to do anything about it, it’s really, it’s really, inspiring it’s really motivating and it’s humbling work.

KOBLAND: Also on hand for the event was freedom rider and Dr. King’s friend, C.T. Vivian who made it clear that on this day it was families first. 

C.T. VIVIAN, Freedom Rider: I want you to understand is that it seems as though you are secondary, you are even more important to the whole movement right now than you were then.  It was a personal thing then right?  Now it is, it takes in all of us.  What you have to offer, what you are seeking, and what you really find is important to finishing the movement. 

KOBLAND: Students also heard from Newhouse School Alum Angela Robinson, since her time at SU Angela has become a well-known, well-respected broadcaster with a finger on the pulse of the Atlanta community.

ANGELA ROBINSON: It is such an honor to be in your presence and I just feel the presence of the ancestors in this place, the work will be done.

KOBLAND: Students also heard from Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice, the youngest child of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King. 

BERNICE KING, King Center CEO: I just wanted to come and commend you on the tremendous work that you are doing, it is beyond needed.

SHELTON CHAPPELL, Son of a Murder Victim: I sure feel like I’m living in this time.

KOBLAND: But on this memorable perhaps the most memorable moments were provided by family members of those who died under suspicious circumstances with answers still not forthcoming.

CHAPPELL: Next year it’ll be 50 years without any justice, I demand justice, not only for my family for all the other families.

KOBLAND: And with word there may be many, many more families involved.

JOHNSON: What we have been finding more and more to be the case is that the DOJ and the FBI have been more intent on closing cases than on furthering the investigations.

KOBLAND: All of this making the work that these students are about to do that much more important for the families seeking answers.  In Atlanta, Keith Kobland, SU news.

KOBLAND: It’s Sunday morning as parishioners begin filing in for church services at Ebenezer First Baptist Church in Atlanta.  Among them, the group from the Cold Case Justice Initiative they were there to get a better understanding of life and culture through religion.  Across the street the original Ebenezer Baptist where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once served as pastor. 


KOBLAND: This new facility was built in his name and on this day students are getting a chance to experience the energy of a Baptist church service.  But they didn’t expect this.

PASTOR: She’s here with the Cold Case Justice Initiative, a project created in response to the 1964 Ferriday, Louisiana murder of shoe shop owner Frank Morris.

MCCRAY: That was amazing I was already feeling this great sense of responsibility because I knew what I was doing, what I was getting myself into.  Then the more I was learning the responsibility on my shoulders was getting greater and greater.

PASTOR: Syracuse University College of Law students now under the supervision of professors Paula Johnson, where are you, hello professor Johnson, and professor Janis McDonald.  They researched thousands of documents.

MCCRAY: And then when the audience got up and clapped for us I was like, I don’t know, I felt like I was some type of, or somebody they really believe can change the world and it, it felt great, it was wonderful.  I loved it.

KOBLAND: For students it was another memorable moment among the many during their orientation into the Cold Case Justice Initiative.

NAOMI TANKS, Howard University: The outside the classroom perspective is much needed because it reminds you that this is something that’s important and it’s a meaningful experience, it goes beyond the books, it goes beyond sitting in a lecture hall, or staying up ‘til 2 in the morning studying, it affects peoples’ lives, so it’s powerful.