Civil rights era murders are toughest cold cases

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement sent its most aggressive agent to work on the case full time, armed with big stacks of files from the FBI and sheriff’s investigators. Even with those resources, it took nearly two years to finally solve the 1951 murders of black civil rights activists Harry T. and Harriette Moore, whose house was bombed by Ku Klux Klan members.

Although the case is finally solved, as officials announced Wednesday, it demonstrates how tough it can be to glean information from that bloody period across the South.

“I think that most of the major cases of the civil rights era have been thoroughly investigated at this point. I don’t expect many more cases to come up,” said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project, a hate-monitoring operation at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “These cases are really bedeviled by, in many cases, by a lack of evidence and witnesses who are either dead or no longer remember details.”

Harry Moore was the first National Association for the Advancement of Colored People official killed during the modern civil rights struggle.

FDLE Investigator Dennis Norred, joined by Attorney General’s Office investigator Frank Beisler, inherited a chase that had been taken up and abandoned at least three times before. A half-century before them, 78 FBI agents conducted a four-year probe across Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas without producing a single murder charge.

Evidence had been lost or destroyed, and the state was no longer even certain where the Moores’ house stood when the bomb went off under their bed.

“We were just running into stone walls everywhere we went,” Beisler said. “But all the sudden, whoosh, it just came unglued for us.”

On Wednesday, state officials said the crime was committed by Edward L. Spivey, Earl J. Brooklyn, Tillman H. Bevlin and Joseph N. Cox. Spivey died in 1980; the others had all died within about a year of the bombing.

The initial breakthrough wasn’t a new interview or tip, but a deathbed confession that Spivey had given to a sheriff’s investigator. The investigator at the time persuaded the Brevard County state attorney to take the case to a grand jury, but before that happened the prosecutor lost his election.

The outgoing prosecutor thought someone else was picking up the case, Beisler said. That didn’t happen until then-Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered the FDLE to reopen the case in 1991.

However, that investigation centered on two other men. One allegedly confessed but then recanted and the other, implicated by his wife, denied involvement and passed a polygraph test.

Then the case turned on Beisler’s discovery of the Spivey confession, which hadn’t been noted in the case file, and a call from an anonymous tipster who said Spivey also confessed to him.

“It verified what the other investigator had told us, just verified everything right down the line,” Beisler said.

A similar convergence of factors led to the 2005 indictment of a former KKK leader in the 1964 “Mississippi Burning” case in which three civil rights workers were murdered. There was a new district attorney and Mississippi attorney general, persistent media coverage and advocacy groups urging a closer look.

In that case, Edgar Ray Killen had been tried in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims’ civil rights, but the all-white jury deadlocked. Killen was convicted in 2005 of three counts of manslaughter using testimony read in court from several deceased witnesses.

But not all reopened cases close so neatly.

In June, a state attorney appointed to review the case of a black woman killed during a Jacksonville race riot 42 years ago concluded that speedy trial constraints prevented new charges. Four men, all of whom still live in Florida, were originally indicted on murder charges, but the case was hampered by missing evidence and allegations of a racist police cover-up.

Lee Cody, a former Duval County Sheriff’s detective who investigated the Jacksonville case in 1964, says he and a colleague even found the murder weapon.

“We bagged it, tagged it and ID’d it, placed it in the property room, booked it,” Cody says today, “and nobody has seen it since the day we put it in there.”

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press