The UN(RE)SOLVED web interactive and podcast were originally published by Frontline, along with a traveling installation and the broadcast documentary, AMERICAN RECKONING.
In 2019, I joined Frontline’s reporting team for Un(re)solved—a multiplatform investigation of civil rights cold cases and the federal effort to grapple with America’s legacy of racist killings through the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. A web interactive, podcast and traveling installation were released in June 2021, followed by the film AMERICAN RECKONING, which premiered on PBS in February 2022.
I contributed the reporting for the web interactive chapter and podcast episode on the 1962 police killing of Army Cpl. Roman Ducksworth, Jr. in Taylorsville, Miss. I also contributed reporting on several other cases memorialized in the interactive and in the traveling installation and on the funding of the Justice Department’s present-day investigations under the Till Act.
From 1962 to the present authorities have repeatedly concluded—without evidence—that Roman Ducksworth started the altercation with Taylorsville Police Officer William Kelley that ended in Ducksworth’s death and that Kelly shot him in self-defense.
Most recently, the Department of Justice revisited the case in 2008—after the Till Act was signed into law. Unable to find its own 1962 investigative file and finding that there were no surviving state or local records, the FBI reviewed media coverage and NAACP documents provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2010, after determining that William Kelly had been dead since 2004, the Justice Department found that the “matter lacks prosecutive merit” and closed the case once more.
“According to our review,” wrote a Justice Department official in a letter to Roman’s widow, Melva, “Cpl. Ducksworth struck Officer Kelly repeatedly and Officer Kelly reacted by striking Cpl. Ducksworth on the head with a ‘blackjack.’ Officer Kelly then fired a shot into the ground and a second, fatal shot at Cpl. Ducksworth.”
My reporting has shown that the Justice Department’s summary of how Ducksworth was killed is based solely on press statements made by Smith County, Mississippi law enforcement in the days immediately following the slaying.
The FBI failed to review the1962 Department of Defense investigative file on Ducksworth’s death, which I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Conflicting witness statements from 9 of the 11 bus passengers suggest there is little that is factual in the Taylorsville police account of the killing recapitulated by the Justice Department. I also found and interviewed Ducksworth’s nephew, an eyewitness to the aftermath of the killing, who was overlooked by the FBI in both the 1962 and present-day investigations. His account raises additional questions about Kelly’s reported allegation that Ducksworth reached for his gun.
Melva died a month after the Justice Department closed the case, but her family still wants the record set straight. “It wasn’t about the officer,” Roman and Melva’s eldest son Cordero told me. “It was about the state and the county saying it’s a justified killing. I need for it to be overturned. I don’t care if this guy died the day after he shot my father. It’s not a justified killing.”