Kansas City’s most famous legal sleuth will soon sit down with a man who many see as the enemy in the battles for justice that have defined Alvin Sykes’ life.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been roundly castigated as no friend of civil rights. The contention, reasonably backed up by decades of political action and inaction, threatened to deep six Sessions’ confirmation.
His nomination was saved by a GOP-controlled Congress more than by his own defense.
Sykes isn’t daunted. He has been in this position before — many times, in fact, during his decade-long odyssey to enact a federal law that forced the U.S. Justice Department to look into cold civil rights cases.
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If anything, winning admiration and cooperation from seemingly unlikely sources has been a mainstay in Sykes’ work on murder cases that others view as too stale to ever prosecute.
Expect nothing different this go-round.
Sykes’ one-on-one, half-hour meeting with Sessions on Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., was confirmed last week. Sykes will be pressing Sessions to back the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016. The original bill was signed into law in 2008.
The Till bill created a cold case unit within the Justice Department. This new version of the legislation expands the work to include cases up to 1980. More than 100 cases were reviewed under the first Till act.
But Sessions could easily undervalue the work by refusing to prioritize it. That’s one reason Sykes has never endorsed the confirmation of any attorney general.
“I have a mission to accomplish no matter who is in office,” he said.
Still, Sykes says persuading Sessions might call for “putting all of my experience and learning from the past to the test.”
Sykes wants to focus on unsolved cases from the 1970s. Previously, the more than 50 FBI field offices were ordered to research cases and report them up the line for consideration. Sykes says more effort will be necessary now to reach out to families.
The last time Sykes faced the prospect of a tempestuous meeting within the Justice Department was when he worked with William Bradford Reynolds, assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights under then-President Ronald Reagan.
But the meeting went well. And Sykes was successful in pressuring federal officials to pursue a conviction in a murder case through what was then a little-used law.
Stephen L. Harvey, an African-American saxophone player, was murdered in 1980. A friend of Sykes, Harvey was bludgeoned in Penn Valley Park by a man who assumed Harvey was gay and attacked him partly because he was black. The suspect was acquitted. The second trial was successful, as lawyers proved that the murder had deprived Harvey of his right to use a public facility, the park, because of his race.
The case launched Sykes’ lifelong involvement in civil rights. And he has continued to increase his vast knowledge of legal proceedings, applying it to other cases.
That includes the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, after whom the bill is named. His body, gruesomely disfigured by torture, was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in 1955.
Sykes was instrumental in persuading the FBI to reopen the case in 2004, prompting an examination of whether there were co-conspirators to the murder who could still be prosecuted.
In a book published this year, the wife of the man who later bragged about being involved in Till’s death admitted that she had lied during the original trial. Carolyn Bryant told a Duke University researcher that she had exaggerated what Till said to her in 1955, which allegedly prompted the murderous actions by her now-deceased husband and another man.
The admission is an example of the long arc of truth that Sykes has spent a lifetime pursuing.