Judge refuses to dismiss Miss. civil rights-era case

Published 4:33 pm Thursday, May 3, 2007

A federal judge on Wednesday refused to dismiss the case against a reputed Ku Klux Klansman charged with kidnapping in the brutal 1964 slayings of two black Mississippi teenagers.

The ruling in the case of James Ford Seale came exactly 43 years to the day since Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee were murdered on May 2, 1964. The teens were seized near the southwest Mississippi town of Roxie and beaten before they were weighted down and thrown into the Mississippi River to drown.

Defense lawyers had argued Wednesday that the case is far too old for Seale to get a fair trial.

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Federal public defender Kathy Nester called to the stand an investigator who testified that 36 potential witnesses are dead or unavailable.

“Every time we tried to follow these roads, we stopped at a grave site,” Nester said.

The case hit dead ends over the years primarily because of the reluctance of some witnesses to speak in court, federal prosecutor Paige Fitzgerald said.

“Because of the reign of terror the Klan had over this state at that time, they were unable to persuade anyone to come forward and testify,” Fitzgerald said. “There is absolutely no evidence of bad faith on the behalf of the government.”

In rejecting the motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate said the “court has heard no evidence that they (deceased witnesses) would have provided any information relevant to these proceedings.”

Seale, 71, was arrested in January and has pleaded not guilty to two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy. Jury selection is set to begin May 29.

Seale, who was shackled and wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and wire-rim glasses, showed little emotion when Wingate refused to dismiss the case.

Wingate also said he would allow as evidence a potentially incriminating statement Seale made in 1964, in which he allegedly acknowledged involvement in the crime.

Retired FBI agent Edward Putz testified Monday that Seale and four law enforcement officers were in a car in November 1964 when another agent told Seale: “We know you did it, you know you did it, and the Lord above knows you did it.”

Seale allegedly answered: “Yes. But I’m not going to admit it. You have to prove it.”

Defense attorneys said the statement was coerced, but the judge disagreed.

“The statement itself belies any coercion,” Wingate said.

In a victory for the defense, Wingate blocked statements from a now-deceased FBI informant who prosecutors said implicated Seale in the slayings.

Earnest Gilbert, a high-ranking Klansman, was afraid to testify over the years, but reportedly told his FBI contacts and his wife that Seale was involved in the killings. Gilbert died in 2004.

In the weeks after Moore and Dee were abducted and killed, the FBI became consumed by the more highly publicized search for three civil rights workers in east central Mississippi’s Neshoba County and turned the Seale case over to local authorities. The charges were thrown out.