He has been called “a loose cannon” and “a white traitor.” Despite that, Jerry Mitchell has never given up his quest to bring unpunished killers to justice.
Since 1989, this award-winning investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., has unearthed documents, gleaned confessions from suspects and quietly pursued evidence in some of the nation’s most notorious killings from the civil rights era.
During the fall semester, the 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist came to campus as part of the Ogden Newspapers Seminar Series.
In his presentation, “Tales of Justice and Redemption in the South,” Mitchell described his reporting that led to the reopening of cold cases from the civil rights era in Mississippi and elsewhere.
For nearly 20 years, Mitchell has investigated dozens of civil rights era cases, leading to 23 convictions. Among these was the case of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.
He also helped investigate the circumstances behind Ku Klux Klan (KKK) Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers for ordering the deadly 1966 firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer.
The case of Edgar Ray Killen, who helped orchestrate the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers, was one of Mitchell’s crowning achievements.
For his reporting on Killen’s role in the 1964 killings, the Pulitzer Board named Mitchell a Pulitzer Prize finalist, praising him “for his relentless and masterly stories on the successful prosecution of a man accused of orchestrating the killing of three civil rights workers in 1964.”
In addition to being nominated for the Pulitzer, Mitchell has received more than 20 national awards, including the George Polk Award for Justice Reporting, Vernon Jarrett Award for Investigative Reporting and the Elijah Lovejoy Award.
In his lecture, Mitchell told stories that made the audience both laugh and cringe.
In the Vernon Dahmer case, Mitchell’s investigative reporting began after receiving a confessional call from a recovering gambling addict. The gambler, a former KKK member, was in the stage of recovery that required him to make amends for his actions. Mitchell pursued that lead, and his reporting led to the arrest and convictions of three people responsible for Dahmer’s death – Sam Bowers, Devers Nicks and Billy Ray Pitts.
Mitchell also investigated the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing. Bobby Cherry, a suspect in the initial investigation, called Mitchell saying he wanted to discuss the case with him. Cherry said he wasn’t involved in the bombing but was watching wrestling on television that night. After investigating the television programming, Mitchell discovered there were no wrestling shows on that night, destroying Cherry’s alibi. This discovery helped lead to the conviction of Cherry and others involved in the bombing.
“I don’t have any sympathy for anyone who does something like that, no matter how long it’s been,” Mitchell said.
According to Mitchell, the most amazing thing that he has witnessed while working with these cases is not the convictions resulting from his reporting, but the reconciliations. He has watched convicted men go to their victims’ families and ask for forgiveness – and actually receive it.
“I offer the truth. I believe in the truth,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell’s quest for truth extends beyond the typical office day. He has been known to take KKK members and their families out for barbecue or sit at home and read over documents for hours. He works to develop relationships with sources and make them feel comfortable enough to share their stories.
“It’s amazing to get people to talk and really listen to them,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes they’ve never told anyone their story before. Few people really listen. It is your job as a journalist to listen.”