Feds Decline to Reopen Orangeburg Massacre Case; NAACP "Not Pleased"

Friday, November 30, 2007

By Tim Smith
STAFF WRITER, Greenville News

COLUMBIA -- Federal officials have decided not to re-open an investigation into the 1968 deaths of three S.C. State University students because of concern about double-jeopardy involving troopers who already have been acquitted in the shootings, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina office of the FBI said today.

The FBI announced in March that it was reviewing the case, known locally as the Orangeburg Massacre, as part of a re-examination of 100 civil-rights-era killings nationwide.

The three S.C. State students were shot following protests to desegregate an all-white bowling alley near the campus. Twenty-seven others were wounded.

Some of the patrolmen, who were white, said they were fired upon first and that students threw bricks and at least one Molotov cocktail.

Students denied they were armed. In their 1970 book, "The Orangeburg Massacre," authors Jack Bass and Jack Nelson reported that most of the students were shot from the side or behind.

Nine white troopers were eventually charged by the federal government but were acquitted.

Denise Taiste, a spokeswoman for the FBI's South Carolina office, said double jeopardy - charging an acquitted defendant a second time for the same crime - was the reason officials decided not to proceed.

"Right now it doesn't look like they are going to reopen the matter," she said.

She said state officials also have no plans to proceed with any charges.

Dwight James, executive director of the state NAACP conference, said he was disappointed. The NAACP had asked the FBI to include the case in its "cold cases" review.

"Certainly, we're not pleased with the outcome," James said. "We want to look closely at their rationale."

Pete Stokes, who witnessed the shootings as a lieutenant with the State Law Enforcement Division, said he was not surprised at the FBI's decision.

"The FBI had investigated it to begin with," he said. "I couldn't see them re-opening a case."

Cleveland Sellers, one of those wounded in the shootings, was charged with inciting a riot and was the only person to go to jail over the incident. He was later pardoned and became director of African-American studies at the University of South Carolina. He saw the FBI's review as an opportunity to have questions answered and to clear his name. He could not be reached for comment today.

The Orangeburg case has prompted calls by some lawmakers in recent years for an investigative commission to look into it. The legislation has never advanced.

"I've never been very concerned with retribution or punishment," said Sen. Darrell Jackson, a supporter of the idea of a commission to look into the case. "I've always wanted to get to the bottom of the story, just for the sake of the family members that suffered tremendously."

Jackson said he would still prefer the Legislature create a commission and planned to ask colleagues again about the issue.

The tragedy also has drawn the interest of South Carolina's governors in recent years.

Gov. Jim Hodges in 2001 said at a memorial service for the students that the people of the state "deeply regret" the incident. In 2003, Gov. Mark Sanford issued an apology for the killings.

Last summer, the late Gov. Robert E. McNair, who served at the time of the shootings, said in a biography released then that he accepted responsibility for the incident. He said in response to the FBI's announcement in March to look again at the case that the decision "is certainly up to them."

"Immediately after the tragedy at Orangeburg, we requested that the FBI and Department of Justice conduct a full and comprehensive investigation of all of the events surrounding this incident since we felt very strongly that the State of South Carolina could not investigate itself," McNair said in a statement. "The FBI and the Department of Justice did conduct a thorough investigation and any decision to re-open their investigation is certainly up to them."

McNair died last week.