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‘I just catch ’em. I don’t fry ’em.’

Reporting by Jerry Mitchell, a graduate of Harding University, led to the recent conviction of serial killer Felix Vail.

Jerry Mitchell is the Energizer Bunny of investigative reporters.

The Mississippi journalist and faithful Christian keeps cracking decades-old murder cases.

I first wrote about Mitchell, a graduate of Harding University in Searcy, Ark., in 2005. The opening of that story from more than a decade ago:

JACKSON, Miss. — Civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, whose brutal slayings inspired the 1989 movie “Mississippi Burning,” stare out at investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell from a 1964 FBI missing persons poster.
After more than a decade of digging into the case, Mitchell made the poster his computer screen saver at The Clarion-Ledger in 2001.
“The state had basically given up on the case,” said Mitchell, 46, a member of the Skyway Hills Church of Christ in Pearl. “It was a reminder to me to say, ‘Don’t give up.’ ”
This summer, 16 years after the movie sparked Mitchell’s pursuit of justice in the case, a jury convicted reputed Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the deaths.
The 80-year-old sawmill operator and part-time preacher was sentenced to 60 years in prison in a case that a defense lawyer said should have been called “Jerry Mitchell v. Edgar Ray Killen.”

Earlier this year, I enjoyed seeing Mitchell at the Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. The two of us were part of a panel on the First Amendment organized by Cheryl Bacon, chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University in Texas.

Eleven years after I first interviewed Mitchell, he remains one of the nation’s preeminent journalists — known both for his skill and his persistence in bringing long-unpunished murderers to justice.

This week, the Poynter Institute, a leading think tank for journalists, published “Lessons from Jerry Mitchell, the cold case reporter”:

Jerry Mitchell spent four years reporting the story of suspected serial killer Felix Vail. Earlier this month, 54 years after the death of Vail’s first wife (his second and third wives are still missing), a jury in Louisiana found Vail guilty of murder.
This isn’t the first cold case Mitchell’s investigations for The (Jackson, Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger has revived. In 1989, he started looking into the long-dormant assassination case of Medgar Evers, a NAACP leader. That investigation led to the conviction of Byron de la Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who was sentenced to life in prison. His investigation has also spurred convictions of Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers and Bobby Cherry, who was responsible for a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
He’s learned over time that reporting on cold cases is both a mindset and an approach.
It’s not a journalist’s job to convict someone of a crime, cold case or not, but Mitchell likes the way a fellow investigative reporter puts it: “I just catch ’em. I don’t fry ’em.”
But it is a journalists’ duty to expose the truth, Mitchell said before heading out to cover the memorial service of Vail’s second wife, Sharon Hensley.

Read the rest of the Poynter feature, including Mitchell’s tips for journalists.

Mitchell’s devout Christian faith pushes him to seek the truth. As he told me in 2005, “You can’t help but believe that God has had a hand in all of this.”

Bobby Ross Jr. is Chief Correspondent for The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected]
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Filed under: civil rights Jerry Mitchell National

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