Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter whose courageous efforts have ensured that unpunished murders from the Civil Rights era are finally prosecuted. In 1989, Mitchell began his immersion in decades-old stories of thwarted justice and undertook a meticulous review of the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Ku Klux Klan member Byron de la Beckwith had been tried twice for this crime in 1964, and each trial ended in hung juries. By analyzing hundreds of documents and interviewing scores of witnesses, Mitchell laid the groundwork for a new trial. The case was reopened and culminated in the conviction and life sentence of Beckwith in 1994. Mitchell has since uncovered largely unknown details about many other long-dormant murder cases. His reporting has played a key role in the convictions of Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers for ordering the fatal firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer in 1966, of Bobby Cherry for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls, and of Edgar Ray Killen for helping to orchestrate the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi. His investment of time and painstakingly detailed research has also produced a broad range of reports on such subjects as racial reconciliation in the South and judicial bribes and chicanery in Mississippi, as well as a series on his own family’s battle against a rare genetic ailment. In an era when long-term investigative reporting is more the exception than the rule, Mitchell’s life and work serve as an example of how a journalist willing to take risks and unsettle waters can make a difference in the pursuit of justice.
Jerry Mitchell received a B.A. (1982) from Harding University and an M.A. (1997) from Ohio State University. He joined the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger in 1986 as a bureau reporter, before turning to investigative reporting in 1989.
Mitchell’s reporting has led to several new prosecutions and reforms. Eight days after his 2014 story showed problems with the conviction of Michelle Byrom, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered her off death row. His 2014 stories also revealed deep corruption inside the Mississippi corrections system, including guards opening locks to let gangs carry out killings and prisons receiving perfect scores, despite horrid conditions, from an organization headed by Mississippi corrections commissioner Chris Epps; Epps is now serving nearly twenty years in federal prison. Mississippi officials vowed to clean up the prisons, but in the years that followed, the prisons got worse. In 2019 and 2020, Mitchell developed sources inside those prisons, and his stories with ProPublica detailed unchecked violence against prisoners and horrific conditions. That in turn led to a Justice Department investigation. His stories have also led to the oldest conviction of a serial killer in U.S. history.
After three decades at the Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 to found the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit that exposes corruption and injustices, investigates cold cases, and raises up the next generation of investigative reporters. Mitchell’s 2020 book, Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, details his work on some of the nation’s most notorious killings.