Policy

Jones’ Bill Would Declassify, Release Civil Rights Cold Cases

Alabama Democratic senator says bill would help public circumvent problems with Freedom of Information Act

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., introduced a bill Tuesday that would make public a trove of documents related to unsolved civil rights cases from decades past. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Doug Jones introduced a new bill Tuesday to create a panel to systematically review, declassify, and release government documents and information related to unsolved criminal civil rights cases from decades ago.

Executive branch officials process Freedom of Information Act requests to see documents related to such cases too slowly, Jones’ office argued in a news release Tuesday, and the scope of what they hand over when they finally do can often be too narrow.

Pertinent congressional records related to the cases are not subject to FOIA requests. And some cases contain information from half a century ago that is still unnecessarily classified.

“Having prosecuted two civil rights cold cases in Alabama, I know firsthand the importance of having every available piece of information at your disposal,” the Alabama Democratic freshman said in a statement.

As a U.S. attorney in the early 2000s, Jones successfully prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members involved in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls.

“This bill will ensure public access to records relating to these cases and will expand the universe of people who can help investigate these crimes, including journalists, historians, private investigators, local law enforcement, and others,” Jones said. “We might not solve every one of these cold cases, but my hope is that this legislation will help us find some long-overdue healing and understanding of the truth in the more than 100 unsolved civil rights criminal cases that exist today.”

The bill follows the same model as the 1992 act that led to the systematic review, declassification, and release of documents related to John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

Jones' bill as a companion bill to one Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush introduced last year.

Stuart Wexler, a teacher at Highstown High School in Highstown, New Jersey, and his students originally envisioned the bill Jones introduced in the Senate Tuesday.

The so-called Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 would establish an “independent agency of impartial private citizens to facilitate the review, transmission ... and public disclosure” of government records on civil rights cold cases.

The panel would work with the National Archives and Records Administration to process and publicly release such records “without redaction or withholding.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill has co-sponsored the bill.

“We’ve made progress ensuring these heinous acts of violence and hatred are able to be brought to justice—but we have more work to do,” the Missouri Democrat, a former county prosecutor, said. “Helping families and advocates get access to these documents could help their push towards justice for these long unsolved cold cases.”

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