Klansman testifies in 1964 case, tells victims’ families ‘I’m sorry’

Published 4:23 pm Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Church deacon Charles Marcus Edwards testified Tuesday that he and his cousin James Ford Seale were both members of the Ku Klux Klan and both participated in the deadly attacks on two black teenagers in a remote forest in southwest Mississippi in 1964.

Parts of the severely decomposed bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore were fished from a backwater of the Mississippi River more than two months after the 19-year-olds disappeared.

Seale, now 71 and a former crop-duster, was arrested this past January in the latest of more than a dozen Jim Crow-era cases to be revived across the South since the early 1990s.

Seale has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy and has denied belonging to the Klan, a white supremacist group that, according to testimony Tuesday, requires secrecy from its members.

Edwards was granted immunity from prosecution, and said he was breaking an at least 43-year vow of silence that started when he took his Klan oath from Seale’s father, Clyde, who led the local chapter or “klavern.” Edwards said Tuesday during the second day of testimony in the trial that Klan members referred to their group as the Bunkley Hunting Club, for the rural community where they lived.

Late Tuesday, when the jury was outside the courtroom and Edwards was still on the witness stand, he looked at relatives of Dee and Moore who were seated nearby.

“I can’t undo what was done 30 years ago and I’m sorry for that,” Edwards said in a flat voice with no emotion on his face. “I ask for y’all’s forgiveness for my part in this crime.”

No one could respond immediately. When court recessed for the day, one of Dee’s older sisters, Thelma Collins of Springfield, La., said in a soft voice: “I forgive them all, but it’s up to them to pay for what they did. There should be some justice.”

During cross-examination by one of Seale’s defense attorneys, Kathy Nester, Edwards repeatedly said, “Yes, ma’am,” to questions about whether he had previously lied when he denied to FBI agents, news reporters and others for more than four decades that he had been in the KKK.

Nester read excerpts from a 1999 interview Edwards did with the ABC television news show “20/20” that included his denials of Klan activity. She asked why jurors should believe him now.

“From the bottom of my heart, I’m telling the truth,” Edwards said.

Nester responded: “‘From the bottom of my heart.’ Isn’t that what you said to ABC when you were lying to their face?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Edwards said.

Seale and Edwards are now both in their 70s with thinning gray hair and both wore hearing aids in court Wednesday. They sat about 30 feet away from each other, and before Edwards starting speaking, Seale sat at the defense table and rocked vigorously in a maroon leather chair. As Edwards testified, Seale sat still and stared forward.

Edwards testified that Klansmen in 1964 suspected Dee of belonging to the Black Panthers because Dee had lived in Chicago for a while and often wore a black bandanna over his hair after he returned. The Klan had heard rumors that black militants were stockpiling guns for an uprising in Franklin County.

Edwards testified that during a Klan meeting, he was the one who suggested the group should get Dee. He said that on a Saturday — May 2, 1964 — James Ford Seale spotted Dee walking in Meadville and called other Klansmen.

Clyde Seale picked up Edwards and others in a truck, and they met James Ford Seale, who was in his own white Volkswagen. Edwards said he saw James Ford Seale stop and pick up Dee and Moore, then both vehicles went to a remote part of the nearby Homochitto National Forest.

Edwards said of Moore: “He was just a victim of circumstances. We wasn’t after him.”

Edwards said while James Ford Seale pointed a sawed-off shotgun at Dee and Moore, he and the other the Klansmen beat the teenagers 30 to 40 times apiece over 30 minutes with tree branches about the circumference of a finger.

“I guess we had to give them a spanking to get them to testify where (the guns) were,” Edwards said.

Edwards, who said he has been a Baptist deacon for 40 years, said he asked Dee during the beating “was he right with the Lord?”

Federal prosecutor Paige Fitzgerald asked why Edwards said that.

“I figured he wasn’t going to make it,” he responded.

Fitzgerald then asked what he thought would happen to Dee and Moore.

“They’d be put away,” Edwards said.

Fitzgerald pressed him to be more specific and Edwards said: “Well, they’d be killed, I guess.”

Edwards said that Dee and Moore were “very much” alive the last time he saw them. He testified that James Ford Seale and other Klansmen took the two black teenagers to Clyde Seale’s farm.

Later that day, Clyde Seale dropped Edwards off at home.

“He told me to go on ahead and keep my mouth shut and everything would be took care of,” Edwards said.

He said that about a month to six weeks later, he heard James Ford Seale talk about what happened after Dee and Moore were taken to the farm. Edwards said the defendant put duct tape on Dee and Moore, put them in a plastic-lined car trunk and, with other Klansmen, took them across the border into Louisiana, where they were driven to an area south of Vicksburg, Miss., and dumped into the Mississippi River still alive.

Edwards said Seale told him at the time that he was concerned about fingerprints being left on the duct tape.

A jury of eight whites and four blacks, with three white alternates, is hearing the trial. Attorneys say the case could last at least a week.