The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project clinic at the Northeastern School of Law offers opportunities for graduate students in law, journalism, media studies, and history to work in the domains of historical redress and criminal justice reform.
Established in 2007, the clinic is run once a year and has been taught by numerous faculty and staff over the years. This year, it was taught by Katie Sandson, an attorney and the director of the Racial Redress & Reparations Lab and Olivia Strange, an attorney and Elizabeth Zitrin Justice Fellow.
In the Spring clinic 14 students, each in charge of three cases. At the end of the semester, students presented their cases to a panel of academic experts and lawyers, and they each produced a portfolio of investigative work that will be added to the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
While previous clinics have focused on cases from the Deep South, for the first time, these students explored cases from border states, specifically Missouri and Washington, DC. “It’s exploratory, in a way, this clinic,” said Sandson.
The expansion of research into new jurisdictions provided an opportunity to begin comparing patterns and trends across regions. For example, the students’ research revealed that investigations and legal proceedings in these border state cases were often, but not always, more extensive than CRRJ had previously observed in cases in the Deep South. In some jurisdictions, such as Missouri, meticulous record-keeping provided students with an inside look at these proceedings, although access to records still varies significantly by jurisdiction.
“The clinic is really at the heart of CRRJ’s work,” said Sandson. “As an educational organization based in a law school, we find the clinic to be a really exciting way to both accomplish a lot of the work through the students, but also to provide the legal skills that students derive from working on these cases.”
Students in the clinic investigate racially motivated homicide cases from the Jim Crow period, and their research forms the basis for the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
“This clinic provided an opportunity to explore the question of what more official process really means in our cases,” Strange said. “What value does or doesn’t it provide to impacted families and communities? How hard did they have to fight for it, and how did it resolve for them?”
When rising third-year law student Celeste Lim looked for coroner’s records for the case of James Henry Perry, she found 50 pages of witness testimony.
“They just don’t get records like that” in the Deep South, she said. Through these records, she was able to establish the details of the case as well as capture what she called the “theatrics” of the inquest.
Celeste Lim looked for coroner’s records for the case of James Henry Perry, who was killed in 1949. These records will which be added to the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
James Henry Perry died in St. Louis on August 4, 1949. He was a 41-year-old partially disabled veteran who was beaten by four white police officers and then arrested for larceny. He died that night in a prison cell. While a coroner’s inquest was convened, it ended in an open verdict.
CRRJ clinic students start with a few documents available in the case, such as old newspaper clippings, personal letters, files or records from the NAACP or the Department of Justice. In one of Lim’s cases, she began her investigation with just a newspaper clipping. Students collect other relevant primary and secondary sources to complete the investigation, such as death certificates, court records, police records, medical records and coroners records.
The objective here, Sandson said, is to document all the facts and the legal aftermath of each case. Not only do the students investigate what led up to the racially motivated death, but they also consider the political and social context, the perpetrators, and the victims and their families.
“All of that paints a more comprehensive picture of what’s happening during this time period and helps us understand the day-to-day violence and the ways in which the legal and law enforcement systems upheld that violence,” Sandson said. “We start to see the same patterns over and over again regarding the involvement of police, the dismissive attitude of the prosecutors and the lack of investigation in many of these cases.”
Margaret Edwards, a rising third-year law student focusing on criminal law, presented the case of Lawrence Basey. Basey was shot and killed in Washington, D.C. in September 1936 by an off-duty police officer, at age 27, while walking with friends through a white neighborhood.The police officer claimed that he had shot Basey in self-defense, but the accounts of Basey’s friends told otherwise. The case received national attention, and a coroner’s inquest was held, but no further legal process resulted.
While Edwards focused on the details of the case, she also provided a broader look at the sociopolitical context. At the time of his death, Basey was a part of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a working program for young men during the Great Depression.
“So much of Mr. Basey’s death had to do with the fact that he was in this New Deal Era program. It was the Great Depression and they were being placed in these white neighborhoods where there was much resistance to the presence of Black people,” Edwards said. She credits the clinic experience with challenging her to think about cases in a more holistic way.
In some cases, students seek out people who might have more information about the incident, such as living descendants of the victims or perpetrators, and conduct interviews with them.
William White was a father of five children in St. Louis and a skilled painter who was beaten to death by two white men on July 2, 1948. One of the attackers was sentenced to three years in prison, but the sentence ran concurrently with time served for another crime.
In the course of her research, rising third-year law student Dominique Agnew found William White’s granddaughter Anise White-Goff, and met her on a Zoom call. White-Goff attended the final public presentation, known as Grand Rounds, during which students present their primary case findings before a panel of experts and an audience that sometimes includes descendants and family members of the victims.
By the end of Agnew’s presentation, Ms. White-Goff was in tears. “Thank you on behalf of my family,” she said. “There’s so many stories like this, and we’re the lucky ones because we know what happened. We have a record of it, and there’s so many families that don’t. This is the way for our family to close the loop on a very painful story that changed the trajectory of our family,” she said.
Agnew hoped that sharing information about the case could help the family heal from generational trauma. “These families didn’t just stop in 1948 … these families were really impacted,” Agnew said.
Regarding the impact of racially motivated killings like Mr. White’s, she added that “them being taken away from their families is still felt now.”In cases where students are able to connect with family members of the victims and have the materials to conduct a thorough investigation, CRRJ tries to work together with the families toward a restorative justice effort through commemorative services. The effort is tailored to the family’s needs and interests. In some cases that means obtaining a public marker, or it could be a media project that tells the story of what happened, or a dialogue with public officials. White-Goff, for example, is seeking to install a headstone for her grandfather.
“In most of these cases where legal avenues have been largely foreclosed, perpetrators are no longer living, statutes of limitations have run out, evidence is gone, justice is just not feasible anymore through the legal system,” Sandson said. “But these are still harms that have never been addressed.”
Featured Photo: Dominique Agnew researched the case of William White, a father of five children and a skilled painter who was beaten to death by two white men on July 2, 1948 in St. Louis, MO.