SU Law students, professors uncover evidence in cold case

Frank Morris's shoe store, burned down on Dec. 10, 1964 / Courtesy: CNN

He is seen as one of the tragic icons of the civil rights movement, a man by the name of Frank Morris. His life ended in a horrific way back in 1964, and his murder has remained unsolved all these years. But that may soon change thanks, in part, to the work of Syracuse University law students and professors.

This story begins in the racially-charged days of the 1960's. Frank Morris, an African-American businessman, was working in the deep south, the owner of a shoe repair shop in Ferriday, Louisiana. The trouble started with shattered class in the morning hours of December 10th, 1964. Morris was inside his business, left to die while it was enveloped in a giant fire ball. Morris suffered 3rd degree burns to 100 percent of his body. He survived the vicious attack, but succumbed to his injuries a few days later.

To this day, this case has remained cold. After all these years, no one has ever been charged with Morris's murder. The killer or killers never paid the price for taking an innocent man's life.

But today, a local newspaper in Louisiana is naming two men, it believes, were members of the Ku Klux Klan and behind the vicious attack. Click here to read the full story in the Concordia Sentinel.

Locally, the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) at Syracuse University's College of Law has been investigating the case. Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald, SU Law professors and co-directors of the CCJI, have met with local and federal prosecutors in search of justice for Morris's family. The student's work proved critical in locating and identifying thousands of unredacted documents. CCJI worked with the Concordia Sentinel and law enforcement, providing them with the crucial documents. "The CCJI is pleased that our research provided the critical foundation for Nelson, leading to the developments reported today," Johnson said.

It is a story making national headlines, one that continues to haunt Morris's family who just wants answers and some sense of closure.

The paper names two suspects, it says, are linked to the crime: Arthur Spencer who is still alive and O.C. "Coonie" Poissot, who died in 1992. Members of Spencer's family told the paper that Spencer admitted several times that he took part in the arson, but that Morris's death was accidental, saying they didn't expect him to be in the store when they doused it in gasoline. The FBI is still investigating the murder, and no one has been charged with the crime.

SU law students and professors have volunteered hundreds of hours, working in Louisiana and Mississippi to investigate Morris's death. They researched documents found in archives, uncovering 7,000 unredacted FBI files through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those files revealed key information, leading to today's Sentinel report, naming two suspects in the case.

The FBI promises to solve the crime, calling it one of the most horrific and troubling of all the Civil-Rights-era cold cases.

"My family has waited for a long time to find out what happened to my grandfather," says Rosa Morris Williams, Morris's granddaughter. "Words could never say what it means to me that the folks at the Concordia Sentinel and the Syracuse University Cold Case Justice Initiative have stood by our side for so long and helped us fight for justice for him and for all the families."

Frank Morris's life ended in an unspeakably horrific way. He was just 51-years-old at the time. The hope is that the FBI can finally crack this cold case, giving Morris's family a sense of peace and putting years of unanswered questions, suspicious and grief to rest.