Edwards Signs Formal Apology for 1972 Shooting at Southern University

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On Nov. 16, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a formal apology to former protest leaders and the family members of two students who were killed by an unidentified sheriff’s deputy during a 1972 incident at Southern University. (Photo: Alex Tirado, LSU Manship News Service)

BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana State University Cold Case Project presented findings from its four-part investigative series, which re-examined the 1972 shooting of two Southern University students, at Southern University’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the students’ deaths on Nov. 16 at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

The four-part series into the deaths of Denver Smith and Leonard Brown stems from students’ work in professional-in-residence Christopher Drew’s spring 2022 journalism field experience course at LSU’s Manship School. Drew, who runs the Cold Case Project, joined Manship School master’s student Drew Hawkins (who’s also a writer for Biz New Orleans) and Adrian Dubose, a 2021 Manship School graduate and second-year Southern University Law Center student, at the Old State Capitol to discuss the Cold Case Project’s investigation. They examined nearly 2,700 FBI and Justice Department documents showing, as Drew said, how investigators “quickly narrowed their search for the shooter to a handful of deputies but could not prove who fired the fatal shot” during a clash between law enforcement and students protesting conditions at the school.

At Wednesday’s event, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a formal apology on behalf of the state to protest leaders, and to the family members of the students who were killed by an unidentified sheriff’s deputy during the incident.

“This shooting has haunted the Black community in Baton Rouge,” said Christopher Drew, a former investigative reporter and editor for The New York Times. “And when we realized that the 50th anniversary was approaching, we wanted to do everything we could to bring out more information about what happened and help the families and others involved find some greater degree of closure.”

In June 2022, the LSU Cold Case Project was one of 22 news recipients to earn inaugural data-driven reporting funds, a $20,000 award, funded by Google News and administered by Northwestern Medill School of Journalism to support investigative journalism. The award supported eight Manship School students and two Southern Law students’ continued work on the series throughout the summer.

The LSU Cold Case Project is an initiative to bring closure to unsolved civil rights-era, Klan-related homicides in Louisiana and Mississippi, based on FBI files obtained by Manship School students. Cold Case student reporters contribute stories, photos and investigative research to newspapers, TV stations and digital news sites. Stanley Nelson, an adjunct instructor at the Manship School, works with Drew to support the Cold Case Project. The former longtime editor of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, Louisiana was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for local reporting in 2011 for his work to unravel a 1964 civil rights-era murder in Ferriday, as well as related unsolved murders. 

The Cold Case Project’s new website, lsucoldcaseproject.com, highlights the award-winning work of nearly 100 student reporters from the LSU Manship School during the past 14 years. It features stories, photos, videos and a searchable archive of 175,000 pages of FBI documents collected since the program launched in 2009. Stories from the Southern Series may be accessed at https://lsucoldcaseproject.com/category/southern-series/. The Southern Series articles have run on nearly 25 news sites to date.

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