All Things Considered, September 10, 2008 · For some families of those who died in violence of the era, the overturning of James Ford Seale's conviction in connection to the murder of two black teens in 1964 shows justice has been painfully slow. For others, the mere prosecution of the case was victory of a kind.
A federal appeals court on Tuesday threw out the conviction of Seale — a former reputed Klansman — on a procedural issue. Seale was tried last year on federal conspiracy and kidnapping charges in connection with the deaths of two black teens in Mississippi in 1964. The case was part of the Justice Department's effort to prosecute old civil rights cases.
This is the first time a federal civil rights conviction has been overturned since the government began prosecuting cold cases in 1989.
Charles Moore and Henry Dee, two young African-Americans from Franklin County, Miss., were abducted, severely beaten and dumped alive into the Mississippi River. Their bodies were recovered after federal agents began searching for three missing voting-rights workers in 1964. It wasn't until last summer, however, that the case went to trial. Seale was convicted and sentenced to three life terms, but now the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned his conviction.
"I don't understand. It's just beyond me," says Charles Evers, brother of Medgar Evers, who was targeted for his civil rights work and gunned down by a Klansman in 1963.
"They took the young men and killed them, and threw them in the Mississippi River for no reason," Evers says. "They had no charges against them at all other than they were black. It's injustice — racist justice."
The appeals court did not find a problem with the facts or the merits of the case against Seale but found a procedural issue. The court agreed with defense attorneys that the statute of limitations on the kidnapping charges had expired.
Judge Harold DeMoss said that while this "in some cases deprives society of its ability to prosecute criminal offenses, that is the price we pay for repose."
"It seems they gave a very reasoned decision to show why they agreed with us as to what the law was," says George Lucas, who is with the federal public defender's office in Jackson, Miss.
Lucas says attorneys are preparing motions now for Seale's immediate release. Seale is 72 years old and in poor health. He has been serving his sentence in a federal prison in Indiana. Before and during the trial, Seale denied involvement in the killings.
The Justice Department says it remains confident Seale is guilty of kidnapping the two young men, and that it's reviewing the court's decision.
Thomas Moore, a brother of victim Charles Moore, had pushed for the prosecution for years. He says the fact that the trial took place 43 years after the crime is still a victory.
"I brought it out in the people's eyes of Franklin County that was in so much denial — that this thing happened in Franklin County," he says.
Moore says the state should bring murder charges against Seale, because there is no statute of limitations on murder. Now that there's been a trial, many believe there's more evidence to make this case.
Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor in Birmingham, Ala., says most of the old civil rights cases were murder cases prosecuted in state courts, and he says this case has good potential to move forward.
"There was a conviction. There was enough evidence that a jury found that this defendant was involved in the kidnapping and possible murders," he says. "One would think state court now would have to take a very, very strong look because [the case has] essentially been made for them."
It has taken decades for defendants to be brought to justice in many of these old civil rights-era cases.
Jones ultimately secured convictions for the racially motivated murders of four little girls inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, but it took 37 years. The successful prosecution of the Klansman who murdered Medgar Evers in Mississippi came three decades after the crime. Families of the victims still waiting say justice has been entirely too slow.
Wounds Reopened As Racial Killing Case Reversed : NPR