I’ve tweeted a number of crime stories published by Narratively (they’ve shown up in my “criminal-justice nightstand reading” posts and are archived here). But the latest, by Ben Greenberg, warrants more than a tweet.
In “A Deep South Cold Case Goes Frigid,” Greenberg walks us through his seven-year reporting effort to find answers about one of too many cold cases left unsolved from Klan murders in the South during the civil rights era. Greenberg doesn’t find conclusive answers about the murder of Clifton Walker, but he finds something important in its own right: clear evidence of how the FBI dropped the ball in reinvestigating cases in recent years.
Greenberg didn’t just guess at this conclusion when the FBI closed the Walker case without even talking to Walker’s family. Greenberg conducted his own investigation of the case, tracked down witnesses whom the FBI never found, and endured pathetic entreaties by an FBI agent to hand over his unpublished notes so that the agent could make some progress in his own probe. In the end, all the FBI seemed to do was cover the same ground it covered decades earlier, reaching the same dead end even sooner because so many witnesses had died in the meantime.
Whether the FBI should pursue such cases wasn’t strictly a matter of discretion. Congress, in the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, directed it to do so. Greenberg’s work shows how ineffectively that law was enforced in at least this one case.
Great reporting, and great storytelling. It’s most effectively learned by reading the whole thing. But this short video by Clarence Smith covers the highlights: