U.S. Sen. Doug Jones introduced a bill on Tuesday that would make it easier to obtain records for unsolved civil rights cases.
The proposed legislation, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018, would mandate that criminal civil rights records held by the government be gathered and maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration. The collection would be available for public viewing. The proposal also would establish a Civil Rights Records Review Board, made up of impartial citizens, that would facilitate the review and transfer of records going into the collection.
Jones said the improved accessibility would allow a wider range of people to participate more easily in unearthing details related to unsolved civil rights cases, many of which are more than 50 years old. In addition to efforts by law enforcement, Jones said, these cases are often solved with the help of journalists, historians and private investigators. “But that requires access to the public files,” Jones said, “and it is not easy getting access to these types of files.”
Noting his successful prosecution of two former Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the murders of four young girls in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Jones said solving that case 38 years after the crime had taken place was not an easy task “I know firsthand the importance of having every available piece of information at your disposal,” he said.
Jones was the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama when he prosecuted the former Klansmen for the church bombing.
The goals of the bill are to make information available in a timely manner, allow disclosure of congressional records that don’t fall under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and release criminal case information that, despite being over 50 years old, is shielded from public view.
Records that could be obtained through the FIOA don’t come very easily, said Joyce Vance, former U.S. attorney for Alabama’s Northern District.
“FIOA is a cumbersome and lengthy process,” Vance said. “It’s generally almost impossible to navigate through and obtain documents.”
While she had not read the bill, Vance said, Jones told her he wanted to make it easier to get access to information needed for litigation.
Jones credited students at Hightstown High School in Hightstown, New Jersey, and their teacher, Stuart Wexler, for the original vision of the legislation he and co-sponsor Sen. Claire McCaskill proposed. The Trentonian newspaper reported that, under Wexler’s direction, students in his Advanced Placement government class drafted a bill aimed at creating a centralized system for housing civil rights cold cases.
The students lobbied members of Congress to consider their idea for the bill. In March 2017, Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush introduced a version of the students’ bill into the House of Representatives. That bill was referred to the House Committee on
Oversight and Government Reform. The students also lobbied Jones who, like the students, modeled the proposed legislation after the President John F. Kennedy Jr. Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. That legislation resulted in the release of thousands of documents related to Kennedy’s assassination.
“We might not solve every one of these cold cases,” Jones said, “but my hope is that this legislation will help us find some long-overdue healing and understanding of the truth in more than 100 unsolved civil rights criminal cases that exist today.”