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Cold Case Justice Initiative Commemorates 10th-Year Anniversary
The Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) at the College of Law commemorated over 10 years of seeking justice and accountability for racially motivated crimes during the Civil Rights Era with an awards dinner on Sept. 29 at the college.
Professors Janis L. McDonald and Paula C. Johnson created CCJI over 10 years ago in response to the request from the family of Frank Morris, a 53-year-old African American shoe repair shop owner who was murdered in his shop in December 1964 by reputed members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Law students work under the supervision of the co-directors Johnson and McDonald. CCJI students works on case investigations, identification of victims of racial violence, legislative advocacy and scholarly research. CCJI was instrumental in helping ensure passage of the Emmett Till Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of (2106).
The celebration brought together family members of victims of racially motivated murders, CCJI alumni and current student volunteers, and advocates and activists for racial and social justice. Speakers at the event included Deborah Watts, cousin of Emmett Till and co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation; Wharlest Jackson, Jr. and Denise Ford Jackson, son and daughter of Wharlest Jackson, Sr., who was killed by reputed Klan members when a bomb was detonated under his truck in February 1967; and Shelton Chappell, whose mother, Johnnie Mae Chappell, was killed by gunshot in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964.
The Frank Morris Racial Justice, Civil & Human Rights Award was bestowed to several recipients at the dinner, including Deborah Watts, Wharlest Jackson and Denise Jackson Ford.
“The knowledge that I received and persons involved in this case and publicity over the previous years would not have been possible had it not been for this great organization,” Ford said. “I am highly honored to be presented with the Frank Morris Award. Mr. Morris and my father died brutal and unjust deaths because of the color of their skin. Today, I stand with and on the shoulders of these great individuals.”
Frank Morris Award recipients also include Attorney Pooja Sethi L’05, an Austin, Texas-based attorney who is the managing partner of Pooja Sethi, PLLC, and founder & co-director of Immigration for All, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in immigration law. Sethi recently received a Resolution in the State of Texas for her immigration work and help with families who have been separated at the Texas-Mexico border. Sethi said, “I am beyond moved at being recognized in this role of activism. So often, the work we do for immigrants goes unnoticed, because frankly, Immigrants these days are being pushed aside on all sides of the system.”
Local Syracuse, New York, attorney Tashia Thomas Neal L’09, who is a former CCJI student volunteer, is another Morris Award recipient. “My work with the Cold Case Justice Initiative was some of the best and most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. Investigating the murders of Mr. Frank Morris and Mr. Joseph Edwards puts a lot of things in perspective for me, as a bi-racial Black woman. Having the opportunity to call the granddaughter of Mr. Frank Morris and tell her that we identified the group of Klansmen responsible for her grandfather’s murder was an honor that I will carry with me throughout my life,” Neal said.
The 10th anniversary dinner was also an opportunity to recognize CCJI co-founder Professor Janis L. McDonald on her emeritus status, and Scott McDowell, former executive director of regional strategic communications at Syracuse University Lubin House.
Although Professor McDonald recently retired from the College of Law, she remains active in CCJI and also provides legal assistance in the federal Civil Rights lawsuit for the family of Rexdale Henry. Henry was a 53-year-old member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, who died in his jail cell from alleged negligence and callous disregard for his extreme alcohol withdrawal medical condition by Philadelphia, Mississippi, jailers and other officials.
Reflecting on CCJI, McDonald states, “The Cold Case Justice Initiative, and the work that we have all done on behalf of hundreds of families seeking justice, changed my life. The families humbled me with their courage, their determination and their belief that despite real risks every little step toward justice mattered.” She adds, “The failure to acknowledge the crimes committed during that time make possible today’s resurgence of White nationalist and neo-Nazi groups of hate, as well as law enforcement shoot to kill actions against Black, Brown, Native American and other minorities. I am so proud of our collective efforts to take a stand against the efforts to bury all records of racist domestic terrorism that existed in our country.”