For four years, Stanley Nelson has investigated the death of Frank Morris, a shoe repairman who died from fatal burns after his shop was torched in 1964.
“It’s hard to solve a murder in the first place; it’s really hard to solve one that’s over four decades old,” Nelson said in a phone interview. “It’s a project of epic proportions to go that far back in time.”
Nelson, whose efforts have led him to identify a suspect in Morris’ killing, was recognized earlier this week as a Pulitzer finalist for local reporting. Debbie Hiott, who chaired the jury for the local reporting category, said she was impressed that a journalist at a 5,000 circulation weekly could find the resources to write such an in-depth series.
“We call newspapers the first draft of history,” Hiott said by phone. “In this case, that first draft was never made, so [Nelson] went back and made sure people knew what really happened. The fact that he kept digging — that was impressive.”
Nelson, who has been reporting for The Concordia Sentinel for about 30 years, is used to digging. And juggling. As one of only three editorial staffers at the paper, he has reported on Morris while also editing the paper, writing a weekly column and reporting on the court house, the school board and criminal court, among other things.
“It takes every ounce of your energy to work through these types of cases,” said Nelson, who has gotten some reporting assistance along the way. “But if you consider it important work, you’re going to figure out a way to do it, and I think that’s true with any size newspaper.”
Nelson first reported on Morris in February 2007, after the FBI published a list of unsolved civil rights murders, many of which were thought to have been linked to the Ku Klux Klan. Of all the names on the list, Nelson was drawn to Morris’ because he was from Ferriday. The more Nelson reported, the more questions he had: What kind of man was Frank Morris? What did the crime say about the racial tensions in Ferriday at the time? And who was to blame for Morris’ death?
In search of answers, Nelson kept reporting. Within weeks after his initial stories ran, the FBI officially re-opened the case.
It hasn’t always been easy to work with the feds, who have vowed to solve Morris’ murder, Nelson said.
“I’ve talked to the FBI and justice department folks and I think they’re sincere, but it’s definitely a one-way street,” said Nelson, who won a Payne Award for Excellence in Journalism earlier this year. “They want to know things from you, but they don’t want to give you any perspective as to why they want to know. I understand that’s probably how they have to work, but it’s not a comfortable situation.”
It’s also been challenging to find sources for a crime that occurred when Nelson was just 9 years old.
“I’ve talked to people all across the country, but some of the hardest ones to find are the people who may have only moved 20 or 30 miles away and who have just lived quiet lives,” said Nelson, 55.
When he finally does find the right sources, he agrees to meet them wherever they want. He’s done interviews in cemeteries and in front of churches, noting that at times the locations are “a little bizarre.” When sources are reluctant to talk, he explains that their input could help solve a murder, and tries to “appeal to their sense of justice.”
Nelson made a list of all the law enforcement officers who worked in Concordia Parish during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and interviewed whoever he could find. As he worked his way down the list, he came across Bill Frasier, who was a deputy under a former sheriff in the parish during the ’80s. When Nelson asked him if he knew anything about Nelson’s death, Frasier said: “I had somebody tell me he did it.”
Frasier explained that his brother-in-law, Leonard Spencer, had allegedly admitted to attending Ku Klux Klan meetings in the 1960s and had said he accidentally killed someone one time. Nelson followed up with Spencer’s son and ex-wife, who said that Spencer was part of a Klan hit squad that torched Morris’ shoe repair shop, not knowing Morris was inside. Nelson eventually tracked down Spencer, who denied having been involved with the Klan or the arson.
Nelson’s subsequent story about Spencer, “A Suspect Revealed” was ready last December but was delayed after the FBI and justice department requested that he hold it so as not to disrupt their investigation.
The paper waited a few weeks and then published it on Jan. 8. Within days, the story caught the attention of The New York Times, CNN, NPR, the CBC and others. Within a month, the FBI convened a grand jury to begin hearing testimony about Morris’ death. Spencer has not yet been indicted.
Nelson speaks about Morris as though he knew him personally, as though he were his friend. He tries to convey to readers the challenges that Morris faced as a black business owner in an area predominately run by whites.
“I thought it was important to understand the balancing acts that Frank Morris had to do all of his life to serve a black and white clientele,” Nelson said. “Back then, people had one pair of shoes. [Morris] could put a heel on that shoe. He could stitch that shoe. At that time we had a lot of ranchers in that area, and he could fix saddles. He did good quality work and he was a good man in the community.”
Nelson says he wants to keep immersing himself in the case, but fears he’s running out of time. Many of his sources are getting older, and Spencer is the only one of several suspects or persons of interest in the Morris crime who is still alive.
Ending his reporting before justice is served, Nelson says, would seem immoral.
“Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of newspapers to do this type of work, especially in small communities,” said Nelson, who admits he sometimes falls asleep with court documents by his side. “You can’t stop until you’ve come to some sort of resolution, until you’ve exhausted every avenue you have.”
Ralph Izard and Jay Shelledy of Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Communication recognized Nelson’s perseverance when nominating his work for a 2011 Pulitzer. Part of their nomination letter reads:
“Occasionally, a clear sense of courageous journalism confronts those who hold the journalistic mission dear. This is one of those times. The dedication, scope, integrity and impact of Nelson’s reporting, and the support provided him by the Hanna family, owners of this 4,700-circulation weekly newspaper, surely stand as a model of what is journalistically possible, no matter the size or the resources, if the fire in the belly burns bright.
“…Stanley Nelson and the family ownership believe in the people of Concordia Parish. They believe a majority of them, like themselves, know that confronting a community’s collective history, however uncomfortable, makes a community stronger, especially when justice is served. And they believe it is the duty of the community’s newspaper to lead.”
While Nelson has received praise for his work, the reaction to it hasn’t all been positive. Some readers canceled their subscriptions, questioning why Nelson had to resurrect an issue that they believed would have been better left in the past.
But as time went on, more readers began telling Nelson that they appreciated his efforts. “I think people are talking about those days now, and those animosities,” he said, acknowledging that racial tensions still exist in Ferriday. “There’s a better understanding between both races.”
Shortly after he started reporting on Morris, he heard from the shoe repairman’s granddaughter. Rosa Williams, who was 12 when her grandfather died, had called Nelson to say thank you. “I read your articles,” he recalls her saying, “and I learned more in the past three weeks about my grandfather than I have in the past 40 something years.”
It’s comments like hers, Nelson says, that remind him why his work — and journalism — matters.
(Related training: Learn what makes a Pulitzer prize feature story in this News University Webinar.)