Reporter speaks on investgating murders

A news reporter can either make or break someone. In the case of several convicted murderers from the civil rights movement, Jerry Mitchell was the man who broke them.

Bobby Frank Cherry, a man involved in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., was one man broken by Mitchell.

Cherry, who had run away from a life sentence in prison was tracked down in the late 1980s by Mitchell, a reporter at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. After being arrested, Cherry sent a cassette tape explaining the murder and containing a note that said, “Jerry, I just though I’d let you know you’ve ruined my life.”

Last night, Mitchell, spoke about this and other murder investigations for the finale of Communication Studies Week.

Mitchell is known for his investigative reporting on several murders during the civil rights movement.

His most well known coverage of the murders was of Medgar Evans, a NAACP field secretary. His investigations helped sentence Evans’ murderer, Byron de la Beckwith, a Ku Klux Klan member, to life in prison – 30 years after the crime was committed.

Cara Kovach, freshman, was surprised that the KKK members have been sentenced years after the crimes were committed.

“I had no idea that this was going on and the people were being tried for these cases that happened such a long time ago,” she said.

Along with the conviction of Beckwith, Mitchell has seen other convicted members of the KKK come out of the courtroom cursing his name.

Mitchell credits discovering the incriminating information to his inherent curiosity.

“If somebody tells me I can’t have something. I want it a million times worse,” he said.

What Mitchell wanted, was the information that went unrevealed in the two Beckworth hearings in years before, which ended in hung juries.

The story of how he went on to obtain this information is told in the feature film, “Ghosts of Mississippi”, starring Alec Baldwin.

The director of the film forwarned Mitchell of how he would be portrayed.

“Jerry, we’re going to portray you as a pesky reporter,” he said to Mitchell.

Mitchell told the director he did no like being called “pesky.”

“I’m obnoxious, I’m arrogant, but I’m not pesky,” he said.

Mitchell’s investigations were just the start of the pursuit of justice by the families of those murdered during the civil rights movement.

Mitchell has been nominated for a pulitzor prize for his investigations and will find out next month if he wins.

But to Mitchell, the justice that has been served is more important than any prize.

Mitchell also believes there is a great responsibility in reporting.

“As journalists, we’re kind of like those comic book heroes,” he said. “We have super powers, but we also have the responsibility to use those wisely.”

Kevin Voland, senior, said he respects Mitchell’s work.

“I think he’s a perfect person to have at the University to get students interested in journalism,” he said.