Reputed Klansman set for trial Wednesday in 1964 Mississippi case

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, May 26, 2007

A reputed Ku Klux Klansman is scheduled to go on trial this coming week on kidnapping and conspiracy charges in the deaths of two young black men who were abducted, beaten and dumped into the muddy Mississippi River more than 43 years ago.

James Ford Seale, 71, of Roxie, has been jailed since he was indicted and arrested in January. He has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the May 2, 1964, attacks on 19-year-olds Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore in rural southwest Mississippi.

More than 300 potential jurors from 45 counties in the southern half of the state have been summoned for Seale’s trial at the federal courthouse in Jackson.

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Jury selection is set to start Wednesday, and attorneys anticipate that part of the case could last one to four days.

This is the latest of several Jim Crow-era cases to be revived and brought to trial across the South in the past 13 years.

Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of a civil rights worker killed elsewhere in Mississippi in 1964, says there’s value in American society re-examining long-dormant cases from an era of racial brutality.

“On the one hand, you could say it’s old because it happened so long ago,” Bender said in an interview this past week from her law office in Seattle. “On the other hand, the very fact that there has been no acknowledgment until now indicates that it is not old history. It’s present business.”

In a separate interview, Mitch Moran of Carthage, Miss., disagreed. He called the revival of decades-old cases “a political movement.”

“It’s a new thing, I guess, digging these cases up, trying to find a jury that is going to apply the law and not feel like they are supposed to come up with a certain verdict,” said Moran, who defended Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen in 2005, when the state of Mississippi brought the first murder case in the slayings of Schwerner and fellow civil-rights workers James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.

A jury convicted Killen of manslaughter, and he is serving a 60-year sentence.

Each potential juror in the Seale case was required to fill out an extensive questionnaire that touched on a wide range of topics designed to reveal attitudes about race: Have you or any of your relatives ever belonged to the Klan or the NAACP? What do you think about interracial relationships? Do you attend religious services with people of other races?

At prosecutors’ request, U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate approved the use of a questionnaire. The document is similar to those filled out by potential jurors in other revived civil rights-era cases, including the Alabama trial of former Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry, convicted in 2002 for his part in the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls.

One of Seale’s attorneys, assistant public defender Kathy Nester, said during a pretrial hearing in April that she worried the questionnaire could cause “racial hysteria.”

“It goes beyond playing the race card. It puts the whole deck into play,” Nester said.

Paige Fitzgerald, an attorney for the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department, says it’s important to ask potential jurors a wide range of questions.

“The government is not inserting race into this case,” Fitzgerald said.

In May 1964, hundreds of college students were preparing to travel to Mississippi for “Freedom Summer” to push for voter registration and other rights of citizenship for blacks who had suffered under decades of segregation.

Dee and Moore were not among the Freedom Summer activists. Rather, they were two friends who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Klansmen had been hearing rumors about plans for a possible armed uprising by black Muslims in southwest Mississippi — a corner of the state so heavily forested, in places, that pine trees often obliterate even the most searing summer sunshine.

Prosecutors say Dee and Moore were hitchhiking along U.S. 84 near Meadville when Seale picked them up and, followed by other Klansmen in another vehicle, took them to the nearby Homochitto National Forest.

Court documents say the young men were beaten with switches and branches while Seale aimed a sawed-off shotgun at them, then they were stuffed into a trunk alive, driven across a state line into parts of Louisiana and dumped into the Mississippi River off Parker’s Landing in Warren County, Miss. — an island owned by one of the conspirators, roughly 75 miles north of where the young men where picked up.

An informant told the FBI that Moore was tied to a Jeep engine block, Dee was tied to some old railroad tracks and wheels, and the young men, still breathing, were dumped into the river to drown.

The decomposing bodies of Dee and Moore were dragged from the river in July 1964 during authorities’ massive manhunt for Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, who had disappeared from central Mississippi’s Neshoba County on June 21, 1964.

The three young men also were ambushed and killed by Klan members, and their bodies were found 44 days later, buried in a red clay dam several miles from where they were last seen. The “Mississippi Burning” case garnered extensive national attention, largely because two of the victims — Schwerner and Goodman — were white. Chaney was black.

Seale and reputed KKK member Charles Marcus Edwards were arrested in 1964 in the deaths of Dee and Moore. But the FBI was consumed by the search for Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, and the case was turned the case over to local authorities, who promptly threw out all charges against Seale and Edwards.

The Justice Department in 2000 reopened an investigation of the Dee and Moore slayings. The FBI has said the case was closed in 2003 and opened again in 2005.