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Unsolved Civil Rights Murder Cases Examined in Pugh Institute Symposium

Four women and a man pose for a photo in the lobby of the LSU Law Center

Left to right: Janis McDonald, co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative; Jean H. & George W. Pugh, Pugh Institute for Justice; Professor Lucy McGough, director, Pugh Institute for Justice; and Paula Johnson, co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative.

Collaboration was the central theme of the recent “Cold Case Justice Initiative,” or CCJI, symposium presented by the LSU Law Center’s George W. and Jean H. Pugh Institute for Justice.

Syracuse University Law Professors Paula C. Johnson and Janis L. McDonald—directors of the Cold Case Justice Initiative—spoke to LSU Law Center students, faculty, and staff about their interdisciplinary project involving law and journalism students investigating unsolved civil rights murders in the South.

In order for the initiative to be successful, both Johnson and McDonald stressed the importance of collaboration between everyone from students to law enforcement officials. Solving an unsolved murder can hinge on a tip from a local reporter or historian, information from a victim’s family member, cooperation from law enforcement officials, and the work of some very dedicated students and professors. When all of these things come together, you get the work of the CCJI.

The CCJI was established in early 2007 by Johnson and McDonald to assist the families of those killed by acts of racial hatred and violence in the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. More than 50 law students have volunteered to investigate long-buried information that might help persuade the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, or local law enforcement officials to prosecute these unsolved murders.

“There is important momentum in Louisiana for righting the wrongs of the past,” McDonald said. “Our work with communities in Ferriday, Clayton, Vidalia, Baton Rouge, and others give us hope that the families of unsolved civil rights-era murder victims will finally get the justice they deserve after all these years. We hope that there will be many collaborative efforts among local and federal law enforcement, law schools, responsible community members, media, and others to join in giving these unsolved murders the attention they deserve.”

Indeed, a number of LSU Law students signed up immediately following the presentation to discuss how they could engage in similar work to that of the CCJI.

One of the cases detailed in the discussion by Johnson and McDonald was that of Frank Morris, a shoe shop owner in Ferriday, Louisiana, who was murdered in 1964. Alleged Ku Klux Klan members forced Morris into his shop at gunpoint, and the store was then set on fire. He died four days later of severe burns. To this day, more than 44 years later, the case remains unsolved.

Several years ago, Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel contacted McDonald, who was in Ferriday over Spring Break conducting work of her own. He had attempted to contact the FBI about the case but failed to get anywhere. Nelson sought McDonald’s help and she, in turn, contacted Johnson. Thus the CCJI was born.

As part of the initiative, Syracuse law students-under the supervision of Professors Paula C. Johnson and Janis L. McDonald-research thousands of documents, work with local investigative reporters, and witnesses who can provide new information. They also seek the appointment of a special agent by the FBI and a pledge by the U.S. attorney for a full review of the respective cases.

As the CCJI became more defined, Johnson and McDonald developed the course, “Investigating and Reopening Unsolved Civil Rights Era Murders,” first offered during the 2007-08 academic year. This interdisciplinary course introduces students to civil rights history, civil rights law, criminal procedure, evidence, advocacy skills, and global human rights in the context of investigating specifically assigned civil rights era murder cases in the Southeastern U.S.

To date, the students’ efforts have ignited law enforcement investigation of additional deaths long suspected by the community to be racially motivated and committed by the Klan.