SU students investigate civil rights era cold cases

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The focus was on civil rights at Syracuse University Friday, with the Looking Back, Moving Forward Conference.

Shelton Chappell sat on the first panel. His mother, Johnnie Mae Chappell, was murdered in Jacksonville, Florida in 1964, in a racially motivated shooting, as she walked along a highway.

"I was four months old. My mother was coming home from work, just like any other day, just like any other American", said Chappell.

Four white men were indicted on first degree murder charges. The charges were eventually dropped against all but one. That man only served three years in prison.

"We talk about what if, what could have, but I do know my mother's dead. That's the bottom line, and they treated us worse than you would an animal. Animals have more rights than we do", said Chappell.

For the Chappell family, the years they've waited for justice have turned into decades, and they say the pain they feel has never been dulled.

"The last 50 years, the weight of this case has really put on some really weight on my shoulders and my family's shoulders. Of course you want to give up", said Chappell.

But students at SU's Law school are stepping in to give these families renewed hope. The Cold Case Justice Initiative is made up of professors and students who are reexamining this case and others like it. All the cases involve murders from the civil rights era.

"Most of them, to my knowledge, were either never investigated or not fully investigated. Most of them would be closed after a very very short investigation", said SU Cold Case Justice Initiative intern Susan Schneider.

The students are picking up where investigators left off decades ago, but they're facing a lot of hurdles while looking for answers.

"Not only just people in the neighborhood maybe not remembering or people passing away, but you also have people who are extremely protective of, if maybe their grandfather was involved and they knew about it, they don't want to talk about it," said Schneider.

While the group has a long road ahead, they hope someday they can give families like the Chappells some sort of closure. The group is working with the FBI on several of the cold cases. The federal government passed the Emmett Till Act in 2007, authorizing investigators to reopen civil rights era murder cases.

Click here to learn more about the SU Cold Case Justice Initiative.

Spectrum customers get full access
to all our video, including our live stream.