But federal investigations into lynchings could only concentrate on trying to prove that the lynchers had violated their victims' civil rights. And often with lynching, this was the only hope of bringing the killers to justice; as Wexler points out, to this day the US does not have a federal law against lynching.
Predictably, the investigation into this Georgia lynching went nowhere.
In December of 1946, a grand jury was convened to decide formally whether to charge the suspects and try them. On December 19, the foreman of the grand jury read out this statement:
We the grand jury have carefully and patiently during the past three weeks investigated the killing of four Negroes in Walton County, GA, which occurred on July 25, 1946. Numerous witnesses ... have been questioned exhaustively. The members of this body are unanimous in reporting that we have been unable to establish the identity of any person or persons participating in the murders or in any violation of the civil rights statutes of the United States.
As Wexler writes: "The federal government had responded to the worst incident of racial violence since the end of World War II with the most massive lynching investigation in the country's history. And yet, there was still no justice."
Faced with this, Wexler also writes, some people found "consolation" in the words of the editor of the Atlanta Constitution (now the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), Ralph McGill. Only days after the murders, he wrote:
Even though [the lynchers] never come to justice, they will have to live with themselves. They will wonder to themselves how it was that they, who some mother nursed and cared for to rear them to manhood, dreaming dreams for them, managed to come to do murder. They will begin to realize that they have taken human life and are cursed of God. They must live with that uncomfortable fact. It will become an intolerable load which will, in some fashion, break them all.
I don't know about you, but this kind of sentiment leaves me feeling distinctly dissatisfied, if not uneasy. We've had innumerable horrible crimes in India -- the Delhi massacre of 1984, the Bombay one of 1992-93, the Gujarat one of 2002, the Bhagalpur blindings, assorted ghastly caste slaughters in Bihar, add your own. Pretty much never have we been able to punish the guilty for these atrocities.
Faced with this failure of justice, many people make the argument that the perpetrators "will have to answer to god", or "must look at themselves every day in the mirror", or "will have to live with themselves from now on."
All of which might be true, I don't know. What I do know is, nobody seems to be in any particular suffering because of the daily view in the mirror. What I do know is, they must know they have committed great crime and got away with it. What I do know is, other would-be criminals must look at this and know that they, too, can commit crime and get away with it. Which is what goes on around us.
All because we think living with the truth of crime committed is punishment enough. It isn't.