Brantley / NPR chip
An NPR investigation revealed new evidence in a case of unresolved murder of the human rights era, including the identity of an abuser who acknowledged his involvement but who has never been charged.
The assassination of Boston's minister, James Reeb, in 1965, had attracted the country's attention at the time and prompted the adoption of the Voting Rights Act, which banned Jim Crow's voting practices. who had deprived millions of black Americans of their rights.
The case remains officially unresolved. In 1965, three men accused of attacking Reeb and two other ministers at the corner of a street in Selma, Alabama, were acquitted by a jury composed exclusively of whites.
But a four-year investigation led by Alabama-based NPR, Chip Brantley, and Andrew Beck Grace, revealed an eyewitness to the attack who has never publicly spoken of what she's seen . She added that the three men acquitted in this case – Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle and Namon O-Neal "Duck" Hoggle – were in fact the men who had attacked Reeb.
This witness, Frances Bowden, also described the participation of another man, William Portwood. In an exclusive interview with NPR, Portwood confirmed his participation in the 1965 assault.
"All I did was kick up one of them," Portwood said.
Portwood was a cabinetmaker in 1965, but he worked as a committed muscle for Cook. When asked about the night Reeb was attacked, he replied, "I was more than there."
Portwood died less than two weeks after NPR confirmed his involvement.
At the time of his interview with NPR, Portwood was 86 years old and had suffered several small strokes. It was difficult for him to remember the details of what had happened.
According to the law in Alabama of 1965, if Portwood had been arrested after the attack, he could have been prosecuted for murder with Cook and the Hoggles.
Bowden, who works in a bonding company on the same street where she attended the attack more than 50 years ago, admitted to NPR that she had lied during her testimony before the court in 1965.
"I'm not proud to lie in the courtroom," Bowden said. "[Because] I said a lie; I said that I did not know and that I knew. "
She also told NPR that she had lied to FBI officers.
"[The FBI] she asked me if I had seen what had happened, "she told NPR. I told them that I had seen people hitting a man, but I did not know who they were and I was holding them, "she said. Of course, we knew who it was; we just did not admit we knew. "
Under federal law, the limitation period for perjury and false statements to the FBI is five years. Under the law of Alabama, it is three years old. Both have expired a long time ago.
According to FBI records obtained by NPR, investigators reportedly attempted to question Portwood after Reeb's attack, but he would have refused to give them a statement. These documents also indicate that one of the other assailants told investigators that he was in Portwood that night, but the Portwood woman at the time had given her husband an alibi – she said he was going to do his homework with his daughter.
This girl, Audrey Sutherland, confirmed to NPR that Portwood had told him that he was present at the attack and that she had confirmed that he was not at home to help her that night.
The FBI reopened the Reeb case in July 2008. According to the FBI file from this second investigation, also obtained by NPR, the agents never contacted Portwood or Bowden for follow-up interviews.
Instead, the officer concludes, "A review of the 1965 record provides no avenue for further investigation."
The agent refused to discuss the case with NPR.
Cynthia Deitle, who served as head of the FBI's civil rights unit from 2008 to 2011, told NPR that the federal jurisdiction over cold business was limited to three things: bombings bombing, kidnapping or exceeding state borders in the commission of a murder.
"If I'm the agent in Birmingham and I'm entrusted with the James Reeb case," Deitle said, "right now … my first thought is going to be, it does not matter. There is no federal crime. "
In 2008, Congress passed Emmett Till's unresolved civil rights law, which assigned the FBI and the Department of Justice to re-examine the unresolved and racially motivated murders of 39, civil rights era. The FBI has submitted about 100 cases to reopen, including those of Reeb.
"We wanted to make sure that every person who committed one of these homicides had been identified and investigated," said Deitle, who oversaw the sensitive case initiative for the office.
In more than ten years, this initiative has called for only one successful pursuit at the federal level.
The story of who and what killed Reeb is told in the NPR podcast Lie to protect. To explore photos, research and evidence behind the NPR survey, visit the site npr.org/whitelies.