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Jones sponsors legislation on Civil Rights cold cases

Legislation that could release government records related to unsolved criminal civil rights cases was introduced by Sen. Doug Jones, D-AL.

Jones said this legislation is necessary because the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), at its current state, has prevented the timely and adequate disclosure of executive branch records and congressional records are not subject to public disclosure under FOIA.

Some of these classified records are almost 50 years old, but it is the classified status that Jones said is important.

The legislation, called the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 remedies this problem, according to Jones.

Jones said this legislation requires the National Archives and Records Administration to create a collection of government documents related to civil rights cold cases, and to make those documents available to the public.

“Having prosecuted two civil rights cold cases in Alabama, I know firsthand the importance of having every available piece of information at your disposal,” said Jones. “This bill will ensure public access to records relating to these cases and will expand the universe of people who can help investigate these crimes, including journalists, historians, private investigators, local law enforcement, and others. We might not solve every one of these cold cases, but my hope is that this legislation will help us find some long-overdue healing and understanding of the truth in the more than 100 unsolved civil rights criminal cases that exist today.”

Dallas County District Attorney Michael Jackson said this legislation is a “good idea.”

Jackson was the prosecutor in the cold case of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African American protestor who was killed in 1965. Jimmie’s death led to the historic Selma to Montgomery march.

The former state trooper who was prosecuted in the case, James Bonard Fowler, claimed self-defense in the shooting of Jimmie.

Michael said that he had to “jump through a lot of hoops” in Washington, D.C. to obtain information regarding the then 45-year-old cold case when the trial began in 2010.

Michael said there are at least five cold cases in Dallas County from the Civil Rights era, and that this legislation would allow not only access to the information about each case, but would also provide closure to families of the victims.

One cold case Michael said was famous in Dallas County is the murder of James Joseph Reeb, a Boston minister who was murdered in 1965. The Boston Globe claimed in a 2011 article about Reeb that his death helped usher in the Voting Rights Act.

In 2007, Jones testified to the House Judiciary Committee in support of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act that established a special initiative in the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate civil rights cold cases. He spoke about the difficulty of prosecuting these cases so many years after the crimes were committed and pointed to the importance of sharing information in order to find the truth.

“It is hard to overstate the positive impact that Sen. Doug Jones’s proposed Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act would have on thousands of families who, 40 to 60 years later, have no idea how a father, grandfather, aunt or brother came to a violent death in the modern civil rights era,” said Hank Klibanoff, Director, Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University. “As a journalist and historian who relies on government-held records in these civil rights cold cases, it’s important to know that our purposes are simple: To learn the truth, to seek justice where there may be a living perpetrator, to tell the untold stories, and to bring closure to families of victims, and find opportunities for racial reconciliation.”

The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 will:

– Require the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to establish a collection of cold case records about unsolved criminal civil rights cases that government offices must publicly disclose in the collection without redaction or withholding.

– Establish a Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board as an independent agency of impartial private citizens to facilitate the review, transmission to NARA, and public disclosure of government records related to such cases.

Jones’ bill was modeled after the President John F. Kennedy, Jr. Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which created an orderly and effective process for reviewing, declassifying, and releasing thousands of documents related to the assassination of President Kennedy, according to a release from Jones’ office. 

Representatives from Jones’ office also said the legislation Jones introduced on Tuesday was originally envisioned by students from Hightstown High School in Hightstown, New Jersey, and their teacher, Stuart Wexler.