Opening arguments set for Monday in 1964 case in Mississippi

Published 11:28 pm Saturday, June 2, 2007

Opening arguments are set to start Monday afternoon in the federal trial of reputed Klansman James Ford Seale, who’s charged with kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 slayings of two black teenagers in southwest Mississippi.

The third day of jury selection stretched late into Friday night and the pool of potential jurors was narrowed to 34 people from across the southern half of Mississippi.

Seventy-eight people reported for jury duty this week, and 44 were excused because they had health problems or financial hardships or because they said they had preconceived opinions about the case and couldn’t be fair.

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U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate said 12 jurors and an as-yet unannounced number of alternates will be chosen at 10 a.m. Monday from that group of 34.

Generational differences emerged as potential jurors were asked detailed questions designed to reveal attitudes about race.

Many of the potential jurors who appear to have been born after the crime took place 43 years ago say the only things they know about the Ku Klux Klan are what they’ve seen in movies or read in high school textbooks. Many of them — black and white — say they haven’t had negative experiences with people of another race.

“It seems like my generation is a little bit different than previous generations. There’s not as much racism in my generation,” one white woman who appeared to be in her 20s or 30s told attorneys Friday.

Some of those who lived during the turbulent era of state-enforced segregation are giving different insight into their backgrounds.

One black woman who appeared to be in her 40s told attorneys Friday that her family had moved away from Mississippi when she was young “to get away from racism” and she said she’s not sure she could give Seale a fair trial “simply because of the racism and the group he belongs to or may belong to.”

Seale, 71, has denied membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Court documents filed by prosecutors say he was part of the white supremacist group that terrorized people in southwest Mississippi during the 1960s.

Seale could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy in the deaths of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, both 19.

Court records say Dee and Moore were picked up while hitchhiking on May 2, 1964, and were beaten by Klansmen and dumped, still breathing, into the Mississippi River. Their bodies were found two months later during the massive manhunt for three civil-rights workers who had disappeared from central Mississippi’s Neshoba County.

Wingate is keeping jurors’ names secret at the request of prosecutors who said some people might fear to serve in a case involving the Klan.

Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards, another reputed Klansman, were charged in 1964 in the deaths of Dee and Moore, but local authorities threw out those charges.

The Justice Department reopened an investigation in 2000. The FBI closed the case again in 2003 only to reopen it in 2005. Edwards has been granted immunity and prosecutors say he will testify against Seale.

Several relatives of Dee and Moore have been in the courtroom watching jury selection, including Charles Moore’s brother, Thomas Moore, 63, of Colorado Springs, Colo.