FBI Records Could Have Solved A Civil Rights Cold Case. Now It's Too Late | KERA News

FBI Records Could Have Solved A Civil Rights Cold Case. Now It's Too Late

Jul 9, 2019
Originally published on July 9, 2019 10:03 am

The murder of the Rev. James Reeb was unsolved for more than 50 years.

Then last month, using the FBI's case file, NPR identified a man who had participated in the attack on Reeb but was never arrested or charged. William Portwood died less than two weeks after reporters Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley confirmed his involvement. At 87, Portwood was the last living person who could have been held to account for Reeb's murder.

Now, Alabama officials who might have pursued prosecution tell NPR that if the FBI had shared its case file with them, they would have investigated Reeb's murder years earlier.

It's impossible to say whether state and local officials would have been able to close the case. The Boston minister was killed during the 1965 voting rights campaign in Selma, Ala., and three men were tried for and acquitted of the crime. And the FBI has failed to solve Reeb's murder twice: once in 1965, and a second time in 2008, when it reopened the case as part of its Cold Case Initiative.

However, if the bureau had shared information after it reopened its investigation, Alabama officials might have done what NPR did — solve the case using the FBI's own file — but years earlier.

"I have no problem with prosecuting cold cases," says Michael Jackson, the district attorney for Dallas County, Ala. He said it is fair to say that if the FBI had reached out to him with case information, Portwood might have been held to account while he was still alive.

"I think there's no question about that," says Jackson, who successfully prosecuted the cold case murder of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in 2010.

Other Alabama officials tell NPR they, too, would have looked into the case.

"By 2008, Alabama had become a place that was trying to come to terms with its segregationist, racist past." says Troy King, the state's attorney general at the time the FBI reopened the Reeb case. "What I'm confident we would have done is a good-faith effort to evaluate the testimony. ... We would have devoted resources to it."

None of the state and local officials NPR interviewed remember the FBI contacting them to share information after it reopened the Reeb case.

"I feel fairly confident, although I don't have access to the records from my time in office, that the FBI never contacted us or presented it or asked us for assistance or cooperation," says King.

The same is true for Luther Strange, who took over King's position in 2011, months before the FBI closed the Reeb case for the last time.

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones tells NPR he was disappointed the FBI didn't share information locally.

"It was just a little disappointing that they didn't go to the next step to talk to the local folks and say, 'It doesn't appear that we have jurisdiction, but here's a couple people you ought to talk to,' " says Jones. As a U.S. attorney in the early 2000s, Jones won convictions of two former Ku Klux Klan members who were part of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

So why didn't the FBI share information with Alabama officials in the Reeb case? For one, the bureau is known for being secretive.

"All of these records have been just kind of huddled away ... within the federal bureaucracy," says Jones. He co-sponsored a recently signed bill that requires the National Archives to release certain government records on civil rights cold cases.

With Rev. Reeb, that case fell into the 'we can't do anything' pile. - Cynthia Deitle, who ran the FBI's Civil Rights Unit during the 2008 reopening of the Reeb case

The bureau may also have been limited by its narrow jurisdiction; in these cases, the FBI can pursue federal charges only on bombings, kidnappings or murders in which the perpetrators cross state lines.

"With Rev. Reeb, that case fell into the 'we can't do anything' pile," says Cynthia Deitle, who ran the FBI's Civil Rights Unit during the reopening of the case.

It might not have looked as though anything could have been done at the state level, either; three men had already been tried for and acquitted of the crime.

"These officials are telling you, 'Hey, if the FBI would have done better or would have shared ... we could have put a bad guy in jail,' " says Deitle. "But that's not a guarantee that they would have."

Deitle doesn't remember exactly how her unit handled the Reeb case. However, she acknowledges that unless the bureau was partnering with local officials, agents were not necessarily required to share the information in the FBI file.

When asked why the bureau doesn't make it a standard practice to share information, Deitle responded: "I don't see any reason why that should not happen in every one of these reinvestigations."

NPR reached out to the FBI for this story, but the bureau declined to comment on this case.

Still, a spokesperson for the bureau said in an email to NPR that the FBI routinely shares information with its law enforcement partners. As for its actual policy on sharing civil rights-era cold case information with state and local officials? The FBI declined to share it.

The complete story of who and what killed the Rev. James Reeb is told in NPR's podcast White Lies. To explore a visual narrative of the story — plus photos, research and evidence behind NPR's investigation — visit npr.org/whitelies.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The murder of James Reeb went unsolved for more than 50 years. He was a minister from Boston who went south to support civil rights and was killed in Selma, Ala. Outrage over his death helped to spur the passage of the Voting Rights Act. But the FBI failed to solve Reeb's murder - twice. And then last month, using the FBI's own files, NPR News identified William Portwood, a man who admitted he was involved in the attack, but who was never arrested or charged.

Now local and state officials tell NPR they would have investigated Reeb's murder years earlier if the FBI had only shared its case file. NPR's Cat Schuknecht reports.

CAT SCHUKNECHT, BYLINE: About 10 years ago, Troy King put together a team to look into cases that had gone cold in Alabama. He was Alabama's attorney general at the time.

TROY KING: Cases don't grow cold because they're easily solved. They grow cold because they're hard to solve.

SCHUKNECHT: James Reeb's murder was the kind of hard-to-solve case his investigative team might have looked into. Three men were tried and acquitted for Reeb's murder in 1965, and no one was ever held to account. But King and other local and state officials tell NPR they don't remember the FBI sharing case information after the bureau reopened the case in 2008. And if the FBI had, Alabama officials say, it would have found a receptive audience.

KING: By 2008, Alabama had become a place that was trying to come to terms with its segregationist, racist past. And what I'm confident we would have done is a good faith effort to evaluate the testimony.

SCHUKNECHT: It's impossible to say if state and local officials would have been able to close the Reeb case. But if FBI agents had shared their records with them back then, they might have been able to do what NPR did - use the FBI's own case file to solve Reeb's murder. Over a four-year investigation for the NPR podcast White Lies, reporters used the bureau's file to track down an eyewitness to the attack and the elusive fourth attacker who had never been arrested or charged, William Portwood.

But it was too late for officials to pursue prosecution. Less than two weeks after reporters confirmed his participation, Portwood died at age 87. If Alabama officials had had access to the same FBI case file years earlier, they might have knocked on Portwood's door and found a man in his 70s, a man who could still have been held to account for the attack on Reeb.

DOUG JONES: It was just a little disappointing that they didn't go to the next step to talk to the local folks and say, it doesn't appear that we have jurisdiction, but here's a couple of people you ought to talk to.

SCHUKNECHT: That's Alabama Senator Doug Jones, who, as a U.S. attorney in the early 2000s, gained convictions against two former Ku Klux Klan members who were involved in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. He says in the past, the FBI has shared information with local authorities.

JONES: That's where you're going to get the biggest bang for the buck.

SCHUKNECHT: So why didn't the bureau do that in the Reeb case? For one, the bureau is known for being secretive.

JONES: All of these records have been just kind of huddled away within the federal bureaucracy.

SCHUKNECHT: The bureau may also have been limited by its narrow jurisdiction. In these cases, the FBI can only pursue federal charges on bombings, kidnappings or murders in which the perpetrators cross state lines.

Cynthia Deitle ran the FBI's Civil Rights Unit from 2008 to 2011. She says she doesn't remember exactly how her unit handled the Reeb case, but she acknowledges that unless the bureau was partnering with local officials, agents were not necessarily required to share the information in the FBI file. And it might not have looked like anything else could be done at the state level. Remember, in this case, three men had already been tried and acquitted for the crime.

CYNTHIA DEITLE: And with Reverend Reeb, that case fell into the we-can't-do-anything pile, which wasn't uncommon.

DEITLE: Even so, the district attorney for the county where Reeb was attacked might have picked up the case. Here's District Attorney Michael Jackson.

MICHAEL JACKSON: If the evidence panned out that that person was actually involved in the murder, then, yes, we would've prosecuted. I have no problem with prosecuting cold case.

SCHUKNECHT: And he has the track record to prove it. In 2010, Jackson successfully prosecuted the former state trooper who, in 1965, shot and killed a civil rights activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Do you think it's fair to say that if the FBI had shared all the information they had on the Reeb case with you that William Portwood, the fourth attacker, might have been held to account while he was still alive?

JACKSON: That's a very accurate statement. I think there's no question about that.

SCHUKNECHT: NPR reached out to the FBI for this story, and a spokesperson said in an email that the bureau routinely shares information when partnering with law enforcement. But its actual policy on sharing civil rights-era cold case information with state and local officials, the FBI declined to share it.

Cat Schuknecht, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.