Appeals court upholds Seale conviction

Published 11:55 pm Saturday, March 13, 2010

JACKSON (AP) — A federal appeals court has upheld the 2007 conviction of a reputed Ku Klux Klan member in the kidnapping of two black men who were abducted and killed in rural Mississippi in 1964.

In a 2-1 ruling, the panel of judges said the evidence in the case against James Ford Seale was sufficient for the jury conviction in the trial that took place 43 years after the crimes. Friday’s decision came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans.

The judge who dissented said that too much time had elapsed to try Seale and that incriminating statements Seale made should have been barred from his trial. Seale, now 74, is in federal prison in Indiana. A Mississippi jury convicted him of two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and he was given three life sentences.

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The victims in the case, Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, were kidnapped in the woods of southwestern Mississippi near Natchez. According to testimony at the trial, the two 19-year-olds were beaten by Klansmen in the Homochitto National Forest as they were interrogated about rumors that blacks in the area were planning an uprising. The teens were tossed into the trunk of a car and driven more than hour through Louisiana and Mississippi before being weighted down and thrown, possibly still alive, into a Mississippi River backwater near Vicksburg.

Their bodies were found weeks later. The mostly skeletal remains were identified by a few personal trinkets — Charles Eddie Moore’s Alcorn A&M College dormitory key, his golden stretch-band wristwatch and a belt buckle with the initial ‘‘M,’’ and Dee’s waterlogged draft card that remained in his wallet.

Thomas Moore of Colorado Springs, Colo., the brother of victim Charles Moore, said Saturday that he was happy with the ruling.

‘‘It’s definitely a victory not only for me but for every victim’s family that went through that,’’ Thomas Moore said.

He said he had spoken to Thelma Collins, a sister of Henry Dee, and she also was ‘‘rejoicing.’’

Seale’s defense attorney, Kathy Nester, said Saturday that the latest decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ‘‘really now enables us to go back to the U.S. Supreme Court and ask them to rule on the statute of limitations question, and we are looking forward to that opportunity.’’

Seale was arrested on a state murder charge in 1964, but the charge was later dropped. Federal prosecutors said the state charges were dropped because local law enforcement officers in 1964 were in collusion with the Klan.

Federal prosecutors revived the case in 2005, largely at the urging of Thomas Moore, who researched the crime.

Seale raised several issues on appeal of his federal conviction, including the question of whether a statute of limitations had expired — meaning it was too late for prosecutors to bring a case against him.

In 2008, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit threw out Seale’s conviction, saying too much time had elapsed before the federal charges were filed. That ruling was vacated when prosecutors asked the entire appeals court to consider the case, and Seale remained in prison. In June 2009, the full 5th Circuit overturned the panel’s decision in a 9-9 vote.

The case then returned to the three-member panel to decide the remaining issues.

In July 2009, the 5th Circuit asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the statute of limitations question, but the high court refused to make that ruling.

Disagreeing with their colleagues, Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia said the high court should have agreed to hear the case because it raises an important issue that potentially affects similar civil rights era cold cases.