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Organization works to resolve wrongful convictions in justice system

The Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University is working to right the wrongs of the justice system. To do this, the organization looks at cases in which the wrong person was convicted of a crime.

Wrongful convictions and wrongful deaths are “all about the failures to hold the exact people accountable, and they are (going by) unchallenged,” said Janis McDonald, professor of law and the co-director of the CCJI at SU. National Wrongful Conviction Day is Friday.

The CCJI is focused on murders that occurred during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Students and professors of SU’s College of Law who are involved with the CCJI gather information to convince those who have the power to process cases, such as lawyers or the CIA, to return to the cases and convict the killers.

McDonald said wrongful convictions based specifically on race do not hold the legal system accountable. She added that the CCJI is standing up for the families of those killed, who suffer from “racist hatred, police brutality and collective societal actions against them such as white supremacy.”

SU College of Law students spent time in Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana last summer reviewing documents at old courthouses and interviewing witnesses.

Some law students worked with families in Atlanta affiliated with cold cases and were stunned at how similar these cases were to cases of police brutality today.

Students “would go crazy thinking, ‘Am I dealing with a 1964 case or a 2015 case?’ The Eric Garner situation happened in the 1960s and it happens today,” McDonald said.

McDonald said the CCJI has been approached by people that have had someone in their family killed and had law enforcement do nothing about it.

“We have to start thinking about why there are wrongful convictions and who it is that’s wrongfully convicted,” McDonald said. “Why are there so many deaths that were never held accountable? What does it say about the legal system? Why is it happening again? Is it because we have video and we’re seeing what we didn’t before?”

McDonald said she believes wrongful convictions and deaths are still occurring because the problems were never dealt with properly. Those who committed hate crimes were allowed to live freely without having to suffer legal consequences, and society allowed this to go on, she said.

Laura Pettler, vice president of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases (AISOCC), said investigators whose sole mission is to assist in solving cold cases use crime scene reconstruction, crime scene assessments, inductive and deductive criminal profiling and reasoning to look toward finding resolutions for cold cases.

Although there are high school and undergraduate volunteers involved with the CCJI, the majority of CCJI student activity comes from law students.

The law students have indexed and reviewed thousands of uncensored FBI files for the organization to use in cases. Students also examine African-American newspapers from the 1960s since the mainstream media did not allocate attention to these murders, McDonald said. They discovered stories in which entire communities were in an uproar or identified facts in the newspaper that were warped, McDonald said. She added that students have identified more than 300 cases and gone through 10 years of newspapers page by page.

“Students have so much power, which they don’t realize. In the 1960s, the students who organized freedom rides were 20-years-old,” McDonald said. “They risked their lives to help people vote and register, to work on the church burnings.”

Kenneth Mains, founder and president of the AISOCC, said television shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” allow homicides to be solved in an hour, but in reality solving homicides can take decades.

“As long as there are dedicated investigators who never give up … there will always be justice just around the corner for those victims,” he said.

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