Paula Johnson

Few would argue with the assertion that racism unfortunately persists in America. However, some do contest the prevalence of racism in the criminal justice system.  Syracuse University Law School Professor Paula Johnson shed some light on the issue in a lecture on Nov. 10. She explained that we see and experience racism not only when police officers use excessive and unjustified force against black individuals, but we see it also in the lack of accountability for these assaults and killings. Johnson traces this pattern of ignoring racist killings to the death of Emmett Till in 1955, whose killers were acquitted of all charges.

Though Till’s death, and the publicness of the atrocities committed against him, may be seen as a watershed event that helped pass the Civil Rights Act, Johnson implored the audience to see that the problems are far from solved.

Perhaps most importantly, families of victims of racist violence, as well as local communities and citizens across the country, see these senseless acts, but fail to see any corresponding justice. This is especially true of victims of police shootings.

So Johnson now works for the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) at Syracuse University, which develops, proposes and lobbies legislation to improve governmental response to cases such as Till’s, that have otherwise been swept under the rug. For instance, the Initiative is responsible for the Emmett Till Act, which was adopted by Congress in 2008 and required the adoption of cold case collaboration units in the DOJ and FBI that would work with non-governmental organizations that already investigate cold cases, but need federal resources and authority to accomplish the most tangible types of progress.

Although many cases that the CCJI investigates are past the statute of limitations, in other words, they happened so long ago that even if someone was found responsible they couldn’t be legally charged for those crimes, the CCJI still does important work in giving families and communities a sense of closure, and most importantly, a sense of justice. 

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