Maryland's attorney general is exploring the creation of a cold-case squad to investigate unsolved homicides, with an emphasis on racial crimes dating back to the civil rights era.
"Having a civil rights component to this office affords us the opportunity to look into current and past civil rights violations," said Douglas F. Gansler, who took office last month and has announced plans to increase prosecutions of environmental violators and gang members.
Gansler met Friday with top aides to discuss the idea of the new squad. The investigative unit would examine unsolved homicides from police files around the state, using modern forensic and DNA techniques, he said.
Compared to states in the Deep South, Maryland has fewer outstanding civil rights cases. Gansler said a survey is needed to count feasible cold cases with civil rights implications.
"If a lot of these people are still alive, witnesses and perpetrators, and if we have the ability to pursue them, the government has the onus to do so," Gansler said.
The investigations would include race-based homicides and cases of civil rights workers who might have been killed because they were identified with the movement. The unit's unsolved cases could also encompass desecrations of synagogues or other houses of worship.
A handful of states have taken similar steps in establishing cold-case or civil rights divisions, including Florida. Alabama intends to add a cold-case unit this year that looks into civil rights crimes and review the fatal shooting in 1965 of a young black man, Jimmy Lee Jackson, that involved state troopers.
A bill before Congress, with co-sponsors including Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, both Democrats, would require the Justice Department and the FBI to create cold-case units dedicated to civil rights.
The legislation, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, is named for one of the most notorious race crimes, left cold for half a century. A black Chicago youth, Emmett Till, was slain in 1955 while visiting family in Mississippi and tossed in a river, allegedly for whistling at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant.
A Mississippi grand jury will convene next month to hear allegations that Bryant was a party to the killing. Bryant's late husband and another man were acquitted by an all-white jury shortly after the slaying.
During the Democratic primary last year, Gansler was criticized by an opponent for pledging to take on crime-fighting initiatives historically left to local state's attorneys. One of his first efforts after taking office -- forming a group of attorneys to tackle gang crimes -- was met with resistance from many state's attorneys, who do not want him to probe gang crimes or prosecute them without the consent of the local jurisdiction.
In an interview, Gansler said he recognized the delicate ground he was treading.
"To set up a cold-case squad, we'd have to have a lot of stakeholders, including local and federal authorities, and a concerted effort throughout the state," Gansler said. "We'll determine the feasibility and try to understand the universe of those civil rights-era crimes that were unsolved."
Special Agent Michelle Crnkovich, a Baltimore FBI spokeswoman, said the bureau was not aware of Gansler's proposed squad. "The FBI is always receptive to requests for our resources," she said. "Civil rights is a very important priority to the FBI."
With only about 30 homicide prosecutions nationwide for cold civil rights cases since 1989, experts say laws and investigative squads may not always achieve their aims.
Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said, "The bitter reality is that many witnesses have died and cannot recall key events, and there are fewer of them as time goes by."
Yet a statewide cold-case unit could help heal lingering scars of racial crimes, said Carl O. Snowden, director for civil rights for the attorney general's office. He compared the concept to the U.S. Justice Department division that hunts down aging Nazi war criminals to bring them to justice before they die.
The 1970 death of Ralph E. Featherstone is one case that deserves a second look, Snowden said. Featherstone, a 31-year-old black man and former organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, died in an explosion in Bel Air.
State police ruled that Featherstone was carrying explosives on his way to a pretrial hearing for his friend, H. Rap Brown, a Black Panther leader, at the Harford County courthouse. Brown was charged with inciting a race riot in Cambridge in 1967.
"There are a lot of people still living who vividly remember the riots of Cambridge," Snowden said. "People who were teenagers then are now in their 50s and 60s."
A lawyer and native of Cambridge, E. Thomas Merryweather, said he didn't see the point in dredging up painful scenes from the past.
"Everybody would like to think those days are behind us and we're moving forward in the correct direction," Merryweather said.
Sherrilyn Ifill, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said, "This idea is part of a national movement in many ways, prodded by families of victims of crimes never brought to justice."
Author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, Ifill has raised the idea of an investigative unit with Gansler's office.
"The community can become whole," Ifill said. "Complicity has the most corrosive effect, and this [model] helps to unburden the anger when society stands ready to use an authorized mechanism, the apparatus of justice."
Alabama Attorney General Troy King agreed.
"It brings peace and justice to the victims' families to have suspects brought before the bar of justice," King said. "They have a right to expect that we do that, whether they live in urban or rural areas. It shouldn't matter where they live."