Dec 31 2009

Righting Old Wrongs

Technology helps federal investigators revisit unsolved civil-rights-era cases and finally close some books on the past.

Keith Beauchamp came into this world long after Emmett Till left it, but Till’s image has haunted him since he was 10, when he first saw the infamous photo of Till’s battered corpse in an old issue of Jet magazine.

Nearly a half-century later, Beauchamp’s 2005 documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” revisited the case in which the 14-year-old Chicago boy was murdered in 1955 for allegedly ­whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta.

Like other high-profile civil-rights-era cold cases, the Till investigation, which the Justice Department reopened after watching Beauchamp’s film, received a long-overdue jumpstart from today’s technology: tools as simple as a video camera and as sophisticated as DNA analysis. These types of technology, combined with the ability to amass information and run complex data analyses, are helping today’s investigators and prosecutors uncover truths that were believed to be buried years ago but still haunt the nation’s psyche.

“Every day brings something new in law enforcement’s ability to use technology to seek the truth,” says G. Douglas Jones, the former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted Thomas Blanton in 2001 and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002 for the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls in ­Birmingham, Ala. “Justice delayed doesn’t have to be justice denied.”

There has been such success in this area that even though the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has reopened many of these old cases, the House and Senate are considering a bill that would create new Justice Department and FBI offices to focus exclusively on unsolved cases from the civil rights era.

“More likely than not,
because of technology, there’s a greater chance today of solving” old homocide cases, says John G. Raucci, special agent in charge at the Jackson, Miss., FBI office.

“When we open up any old homicide investigation, we recognize that we have all sorts of tools available today that were not available when the crime was committed,” says John G. Raucci, special agent in charge at the Jackson, Miss., FBI office, which recently investigated the Till murder and the slaying of three civil rights workers in 1964. (An appeal of the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen is pending in that second crime.) “More likely than not, because of technology, there’s a greater chance today of solving the case.”

With 50 years’ distance from Till’s murder, Beauchamp relied on archival microfilm to piece together the basic facts of the investigation. Court documents, he was told, had long been missing. He used amateur filmmaking tools to interview witnesses who wanted to tell their stories.

Thanks to word-of-mouth via the Internet, Beauchamp caught the attention of the Justice Department, which subsequently decided to exhume Till’s body. Fifty years after Till was murdered, an autopsy helped FBI investigators determine the cause of death and locate bullet fragments. DNA was used to positively identify the corpse as Till’s, a fact that was disputed by defense attorneys in the 1955 trial. The Mississippi Delta district attorney is now considering whether to prosecute the case.

“Technology played a very significant role in getting this case reopened,” Beauchamp says. “If it wasn’t for the technology that kept these facts in existence after all these years, I never would have gotten this far.”

Time Travel

After the Birmingham church bombing, FBI agents gathered debris from the crime scene, but their analysis provided few clues. Decades later, investigators were sure that modern technology would provide leads that their predecessors had missed.

Technology might have determined the type of explosive material used, Jones explains. That could have dispelled rumors that it was a natural gas explosion or provided insight into whether the bomb was produced locally (dynamite was prolific in Birmingham because of a nearby plant) or if it was a transported material, such as nitroglycerin.

Unfortunately, the evidence disappeared long ago. In 1963, no one dreamed that a hair fiber would be that important, so evidence was often discarded or misplaced, Jones says.

“Therein lies the real Achilles heel for a lot of these cases,” he explains. “There is always the hope that technology could shed some light on these old cases, but people have to be realistic at the end of the day.”

The bottom line in any cold case is what evidence has been preserved and in what condition. Advances in just the last couple of years have made it possible to analyze even the tiniest fragments of evidence, says Max Houck, a former FBI laboratory analyst who now directs the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University.

Not long ago, investigators testing blood for DNA would need a coin-sized sample to analyze. In the past few years, the “detection limit” has reached the nanotechnology level, which means investigators only need a microscopic sample to find a potential DNA match.

Data Tales

Another major breakthrough in criminal investigative technology is the ability to organize information into databases for everything from DNA to automotive paint to fingerprints to firearms.

Data mining and analysis applications “allow for the correlation of information that would be almost impossible to sort through by hand,” Houck says. “That has revolutionized the way you can look at cases, especially old ones.”

Even though criminal databases have been around for years, their growing use has improved their effectiveness since more suspects are in the system. All 50 states require that DNA samples be entered into CODIS, the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System database.

The technology behind the databases also is growing in sophistication, he adds. For instance, the algorithms used to analyze prints in the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) are far more complex than in the past.

That said, fingerprint technology still has room for improvement, says Dr. Jay Siegel, director of the forensic and investigative sciences program at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. IAFIS can narrow a pool of suspects based on prints, but a manual comparison is required for a positive match. There are efforts to develop digital methods of comparing fingerprints that would allow computers to generate final matches, Siegel says.

Even old tools, such as polygraph tests, are “leaps and bounds” more sophisticated than in the past, Siegel says.

But, Houck says, in the end, the “technology is just a tool. What really matters is how it’s applied.”