Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) implored the media to run segments on attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) participation in the prosecution of an Alabama Klansman who lynched an African-American youth. But in his retelling of the 1981 prosecution, Cruz omitted key information, specifically that Sessions’ subordinate in the U.S. attorney’s office later testified that Sessions tried to dissuade him from pursuing prosecution in the case.
On March 21, 1981, Michael Donald, an African-American teenager, was lynched in Mobile, AL, by Henry Hays and another conspirator. Hays was acting on the orders of his father, who was second in command of Alabama’s Ku Klux Klan organization, to randomly kill an African-American in retaliation for the murder of a white police officer.
Local law enforcement severely botched the murder investigation. As reported by The Atlantic, one law enforcement officer told reporters that the murder was a case where “three junkies had killed this lowlife black man who thought he could take drugs from them and not pay.” Other members of law enforcement attempted to smear Donald with allegations of other criminal conduct.
At the time of the murder, Sessions was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. Following the failure of local law enforcement to properly investigate the case, an assistant U.S. attorney in Sessions’ office, Thomas Figures, became the “driving force” in securing the involvement of attorneys in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. During the subsequent prosecution, Sessions took on a “supervisory role,” working in concert with Figures, attorneys from the Civil Rights Division, and state prosecutors. Hays was convicted of murder, sentenced to death, and later executed.
Sessions lists his participation in the case as one of his biggest career accomplishments, and conservative media have repeatedly cited the case to defend Sessions against longstanding allegations of racism. (In 1986, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench amid testimony that he directed racially derogatory language toward Figures, who was black, and allegations that Sessions used his position as a prosecutor to unfairly target minorities.)
During the first day of Sessions’ confirmation hearings on January 10, Cruz cited the case and the statements of other attorneys who worked on the case who said that Sessions was cooperative and helpful during the prosecution. Cruz then issued a “challenge,” saying, “I would encourage the news media: Cover this story. Tell the story on the six o’clock news about Jeff Sessions helping prosecute a Klansman who had murdered an innocent African-American man, and putting him on death row, and bankrupting -- helping bankrupt the Klan in Alabama. That’s a story that needs to be told.”
In his remarks, Cruz failed to mention Figures’ testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during Sessions’ failed 1986 nomination. Figures testified that Sessions sought to prevent him from forming a prosecutable case, telling him at the time “that the case was a waste of time, that it wasn’t going anywhere, that I should spend more time on other things, and that, if the perpetrators were found, I would not be assigned to the case.” As Figures recounted, Sessions came on board only when it “became increasingly apparent that we were going to break the case.” During the 1986 hearing, Sessions denied Figures’ allegations. From The Atlantic:
In 1986, Figures testified before the Senate that while it was “literally true” that Sessions had not “obstructed the investigation of the murder of Michael Donald,” Sessions had “tried to persuade me to discontinue pursuit of the case.” Figures said that Sessions “remarked, with regard to the investigation, that the case was a waste of time, that it wasn’t going anywhere, that I should spend more time on other things, and that, if the perpetrators were found, I would not be assigned to the case.” Figures told the Senate that after the case went to the grand jury, and it “became increasingly apparent that we were going to break the case, Mr. Sessions attitude changed” and that he supported the prosecution.
Sessions’s statements to the Senate in 1986 about his supervisory role in the case are more modest than what he and his supporters say today, and while his testimony at the time generally did not directly contradict Figures’s account, Sessions insisted that he did not urge Figures to drop the case.
Significantly, Cruz’s secondary claim about Sessions helping to bankrupt the Klan greatly overstates Sessions’ involvement. It was actually Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center who conceptualized and executed the novel civil lawsuit that led to that outcome, using the facts of the Hays murder case to establish that the Klan had organizational liability for Donald’s murder. A 1987 New York Times article on the verdict makes no mention of Sessions, instead focusing on the members of Donald’s family, attorneys, and activists who played the primary role in securing the outcome.