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Eventually, he homed in on a single word in a 1976 opinion by an assistant attorney general named Antonin Scalia. The opinion gave the feds jurisdiction to conduct further investigations into John F. Kennedy's assassination. The government had used the same opinion to investigate Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder. Ten years before he became a Supreme Court justice, Scalia concluded that even when violators couldn't be prosecuted for their alleged crimes (such as when a statute of limitations had run out), the public interest was still served by efforts to detect whether those crimes had even been committed. Further, Scalia wrote, sometimes the Department of Justice needs to investigate its own investigations.
After months of meetings with Sykes, Emmett Till's relatives, Beauchamp, and various Mississippi and federal officials, the Department of Justice announced in May 2004 the opening of a new, full-scale investigation.
Over the past two years, the FBI has gone back over the evidence. Chiles received the results of the bureau's investigation last Thursday.
Chiles generally refuses media inquiries about the case, but she did speak with the Pitch.
"I take no credit for the opening of the Till investigation," she says. Although her office was the one that officially requested the assistance of the Justice Department and the FBI in looking into the case, Sykes laid the groundwork for that to happen, she says. "I think it was Sykes' effort and his contacts in Washington that played the biggest role."
Chiles describes Sykes as sincere and tenacious. She remembers her first contact with him in February 2004. "I talked to him on the phone and had no idea who he was. But he was telling me about two meetings he had set up in Mississippi that he'd like me to attend. He gave me the choice of [meeting in] Oxford or Jackson. Out of curiosity, I chose the Oxford site to see who this person was who was so brazen that he would give me a choice of meeting in two places."
That meeting involved Sykes, Beauchamp, Simeon Wright and staffers at the U.S. Attorney's office. "Mr. Sykes was very vocal in why the investigation should be reopened," Chiles recalls. "We all listened very attentively to him as he spoke, and I have been in contact with him since that moment. One thing about him that I find most interesting is that he's not the most concerned with trial, trial, trial, but more or less learning the truth and if justice can be served then it should be."
If Sykes has his way, the search for truth won't end when the Emmett Till case does.
Sykes has convinced Sen. Talent to introduce legislation that could dedicate $10 million to creating an office in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting unsolved murders from the civil rights era.
Talent tells the Pitch, "When Alvin suggested it, it just hit me of course we've got to do that."
Cynics might think that Talent who has earned straight F's in the NAACP's annual Legislative Report Cards for his failure to support the organization's causes is jumping on an emotional bandwagon to court black voters. But the senator appears to be devoted to bringing unsolved civil rights-era cases to justice.
Others are, too. Last June, a Mississippi judge sentenced 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen to 60 years in prison for the mob deaths of three civil rights workers in 1964.