Senate approves millions to probe old civil rights cases
WASHINGTON - The Senate passed legislation yesterday that would give the Justice Department more money to investigate unsolved slayings from the civil rights era.
The bill authorizes $10 million annually over 10 years to help the FBI and other agencies take a fresh look at dozens of cold cases, mostly in the South. Additional funds are included for local law enforcement agencies.
The bill is named after Emmett Till, a black teenager slain in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman. His killers were never convicted.
The House passed a similar bill last summer. But the measure had stalled in the Senate due to opposition from Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has single-handedly blocked dozens of bills for their spending provisions.
Coburn sought his own legislation that would have taken money from other areas of the budget to pay for the civil rights initiative. But Democrats refused to go along, and Coburn ultimately abandoned his opposition. The bill passed unanimously yesterday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the idea has always had broad bipartisan support and called it "shameful" that Coburn had delayed the legislation for a year.
Coburn was unapologetic. "For the victims of these decades-old crimes, justice delayed is justice denied," he said. "Yet, it is also unjust that Congress' borrow and spend approach to passing legislation will burden future generations with the cost of today's well-intentioned, but fiscally irresponsible, efforts."
Since 1989, state and federal authorities have made about 29 arrests in civil rights crimes, leading to 23 convictions, according to civil rights organizations and others.
Last year, the FBI announced a new Cold Case Initiative to redouble efforts at cracking other long-ignored crimes. But the initiative has no stand-alone budget, and civil rights leaders have expressed disappointment that it hasn't resulted in new prosecutions.
The new funding in the Till legislation must be finalized in subsequent spending legislation.