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Witnesses’ memories a challenge in reopening 1964 case, professor says

Witnesses’ potentially fading memories could present a challenge in the prosecution of a reputed Ku Klux Klansman who faces federal kidnapping charges in the 1964 abduction, beating and drowning of two black teenagers in Mississippi, a law professor says.

Mark A. Godsey, professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, said some witnesses might have fading memories, while others might recall details about what happened on May 2, 1964, when prosecutors say two 19-year-old hitchhikers — Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee — were seized and killed.

“Something like this doesn’t happen every day. It could be something that is very traumatic to witnesses,” said Godsey, who’s faculty director and lead counsel for the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Institute for Justice/Ohio Innocence Project, where he represents convicted inmates who seek new trials because evidence such as DNA has emerged.

Reputed Klansman James Ford Seale, 71, has been jailed outside Jackson since federal authorities arrested him last Wednesday in Roxie, the tiny southwest Mississippi town where he lives in a motor home on land owned by his stepdaughter and her husband. He pleaded not guilty Thursday to three charges of kidnapping and conspiracy.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda R. Anderson denied Seale bond Monday, saying he was a flight risk because he has no job or property, is a pilot and lives in a vehicle that can be driven away. Anderson also said she had concerns because Seale concealed from federal authorities that he has a brother living in Louisiana.

Seale’s trial is set for April 2, but that could be pushed back.

Paige Fitzgerald, an attorney for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said Seale took part in “a crime so horrific it boggles the mind.”

Prosecutors say Klansmen seized Dee and Moore, took them to the Homochitto National Forest and beat them, then drove north to a site near Vicksburg where they tied heavy metal objects to the still living teenagers and tossed them into the Mississippi River. Their bodies were found about two months later as authorities dragged the river in search of three civil-rights workers who had disappeared about 180 miles away in Neshoba County.

Defense attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Seale, arguing that the statute of limitations has expired.

Godsey, in a telephone interview this week from Ohio, said there might be a constitutional problem in filing charges four decades after a crime is committed “if the prosecution had all the evidence and just sat on it.” The professor said there might not be a problem if new evidence becomes available.

Federal authorities reopened an investigation after The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson published documents in 2000 showing the attack on Dee and Moore took place in a national forest.

A second white man long suspected in the attack, reputed KKK member Charles Marcus Edwards, 72, has not been charged. People close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity said Edwards has been cooperating with authorities the past few months.

Seale, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and shackled at the ankles and wrists, showed little emotion after Anderson denied the bond. About an hour earlier, as he entered the courtroom, he smiled at his wife, seven other relatives and a family pastor who sat on the front row. One female relative blew him a kiss, and Seale waved, barely able to extend his hand because of the chains.

Seale’s court-appointed public defenders requested that he be let out of jail without having to put up money for a bond because he has little income and lives off Social Security payments. They cited his lack of a job and a litany of complicated health problems, including a history of high blood pressure, back pain, kidney and bladder cancer, and emphysema so severe that he has to sleep under an oxygen tent.

Seale’s wife, Jean, sat with her hands folded in her lap as she testified about her husband’s medical problems and about where the couple has lived since they married in 1995 — most of the time in Roxie and part of the time near Demopolis, Ala., where they have relatives.

“He can’t walk very far, and a lot of days he can’t even get out of the motor home,” Jean Seale testified.

She said her husband is under the care of five doctors and has problems with his left leg from having had polio earlier in life.

Fitzgerald asked Jean Seale whether the couple lives in “something you can drive?”

“Well, yeah, he can drive it,” she said.

Federal probation officer Mark Quarles testified that during an interview before the bond hearing, Seale mentioned having one brother who’s alive and one who has died. Quarles said Seale did not mention another brother, Don Seale, who lives in Louisiana and has been interviewed by FBI agents from New Orleans.

Quarles also said James Ford Seale denied having been in the Klan. Fitzgerald said she had documents showing Seale had been subpoenaed in 1965 to testify before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, and she said the subpoena was served on him while he was at a Klan meeting.

“We’re also confident that he is a member of the Ku Klux Klan, basically a terrorist organization,” Fitzgerald said, prompting objections from Seale’s attorneys.

Defense attorney Kathy Nester said there is “zero evidence to suggest Mr. Seale is currently or even in the immediate past affiliated with a Klan organization.”