Nov. 16, 1972

Credit: Courtesy: LSU Manship School News Service

A law enforcement officer shot and killed two students at Southern University in Baton Rouge after weeks of protests over inadequate services. 

When the students marched on University President Leon Netterville’s office, Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards sent scores of police officers in to break up the demonstrations. A still-unidentified officer shot and killed two 20-year-old students, Leonard Brown and Denver Smith, who weren’t among the protesters. No one was ever prosecuted in their slayings. 

They have since been awarded posthumous degrees, and the university’s Smith-Brown Memorial Union bears their names. Stanley Nelson’s documentary, “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” featured a 10-minute segment on the killings. 

“They were exercising their constitutional rights. And they get killed for it,” former student Michael Cato said. “Nobody sent their child to school to die.” 

In 2022, Louisiana State University Cold Case Project reporters, utilizing nearly 2,700 pages of previously undisclosed documents, recreated the day of the shootings and showed how the FBI narrowed its search to several sheriff’s deputies but could not prove which one fired the fatal shot. The four-part series prompted Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards to apologize to the families of the victims on behalf of the state.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.