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Unit dedicated to solving cold case files in Alabama

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Alabama police departments that run out of resources to investigate cases now have another tool to use in bringing criminals to justice: a new cold case unit.

Attorney General Troy King announced Wednesday that his office will open the two-investigator unit on Oct. 1 with a $200,000 appropriation from the state Legislature. The investigators will work exclusively on cold cases, reviewing those submitted by local authorities as well as taking calls from the public.

King said civil rights era cases that "continue to stalk and haunt the South" will get special attention, but not to the exclusion of more recent cases. New forensics technology — such as DNA testing — will also be used, he said.

"We watch these television programs unfold and we see cold case unit television shows," he said during a news conference at the Statehouse. "People in our state don't understand why that has to be fantasy on TV. and why it's not reality in our state. With today's announcement it is reality in our state."

A committee will start screening cases for the unit based on factors including the age of the case, severity of the crime, existence of DNA evidence and availability of witnesses.

J.W. Barnes, who was a general investigator in King's office, will be one of the two members of the new unit and a personnel search has begun for the second.

Barnes said cases often turn cold when the original lead detective leaves the investigation. Cases can be considered cold whether they're left unsolved for six months, three years or even 40 years like those from the civil rights era, he said.

"A lot of these cases, you put them in a file cabinet and the police departments — especially ones where manpower is thin — they're busy fighting crime that occurred today and they really don't have time to look at murders that occurred in the past," he said. "So I'm hoping that we can help these law enforcement agencies by assisting them in reviewing these old cases."

King would not say which civil rights cases are being considered, but he said his office has been working with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that has pressed for more prosecutions.

House Government Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said he pushed for the appropriation because "family members deserves to know what happened in those" cold cases.

A Perry County grand jury returned an indictment in May against former state trooper James Bonard Fowler, who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson during a civil rights protest in 1965. The shooting, which Fowler said was in self-defense, became the catalyst for the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march later that year and passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Perry County District Attorney Michael Jackson initiated that investigation and indictment of Fowler after an earlier inquiry by King's office did not result in any charges.

Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen said the Jackson case highlights the need for initiatives like the new unit. The Montgomery-based center has identified about 75 such unsolved civil rights era cases, he said in a telephone interview.

"If this cold case unit is going to live up to its name, you have to do more than hold a news conference," Cohen said. "They need to do all they can to unearth potential cases and the state's involvement in the Jimmie Lee Jackson case is critical."

"Also, it's very important that we not give families false hope that all these crimes will be solved because the reality is they won't. What we can give them is the assurance that we will do everything we can to see that justice is done."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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